Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Living up to the demands of freedom of expression

The recent dismissal of David Bullard has placed our nation at a crossroads. We are faced with two choices. The first is to acknowledge how far we have come over the last 14 years. We can take pride in the fact that we have a constitution that promises universal freedom, dignity and equality and we can live up to that promise be acting on those principles. The second choice is to pretend that we have achieved next to nothing. We can cower in fear and delude ourselves that South Africa is a fragile democracy that can't afford to implement its constitution, because if we utilized our rights, what little gains we have made would be lost in an instant.

Mondli Makhanya has made it clear that he does not know which choice to make. I applaud him for saying that "the right to free speech is something everyone on this newspaper holds dear. We hold diverse views on different issues and would lay down our lives in defense of everyone's right to express themselves." However by firing Bullard he has failed to live up to his words.

Free expression can not be limited on the basis that it offends some of our sensibilities, to do so would be absurd, when we realize the vast range of views and activities that people are offended by. Some segments of our society are highly offended by legally protected activities like homosexual kissing, interracial racial marriage, or wearing garish clothing. In their wisdom the drafters of our constitution placed the threshold for censorship higher than the presence of mere offence. They allowed racist speech to be limited if and only if it constitutes incitement to cause harm.

It is of course up for debate whether Bullard's views are racist, but it is entirely clear that they do not constitute an incitement to cause harm. Putting the constitution aside for a moment, it may be asked why we should protect racist speech at all. Why not just ban it?

Allowing the free dissemination of beliefs, opinions and other forms of expression brings with it immense benefits. It allows for intellectual, cultural and artistic progress whilst provoking discussion and aiding the search for truth. Since we are not infallible we cannot know with certainty that a particular opinion is false. When we suppress opinions that are believed to be false we risk missing out on the truth. By stifling beliefs that are different from our own we lose the opportunity to challenge, reconsider and perhaps reaffirm
our own views. When people are exposed to a range of conflicting opinions on a subject they are given the opportunity to exercise their rational faculties, weigh up the arguments on both sides and come to form their own view on the matter.

In the marketplace of ideas the truth is given a chance to demonstrate the shortcomings of racist views. But we have to allow those views to be expressed so that we can discredit them. Banning them, drives them underground, where they fester, only to rise up again in a more putrid form.

Newspapers have a duty to be even handed; it is unjust to suppress Bullard while allowing a reader to respond to his article by saying that "the dregs of Europe had to be scoured to find our illustrious pioneer ancestors, the best of whom were an ignorant bunch of Dutch peasant farmers and a ragtag collection of low-class English miners." Even though both views may be difficult for some to stomach, our democracy is strong enough for them to be pitted against each in a public forum.

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