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Free speech: Don't let them finish off your rights

By Mihir S Sharma
March 02, 2017 11:11 IST

The right to protest, or to ensure words have consequences, or to deny repugnant ideas a platform you control, are as essential a part of the right to expression as any other, observes Mihir S Sharma.

A commitment to the freedom of expression has one constantly irritating corollary: You have to support the rights of people who can be, frankly, detestable. They may be terrible writers, execrable cartoonists, or -- in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, pro-paedophilia neo-Nazis with terrible fashion choices -- but they all have a right to speak, and to write.

Unfortunately, the terrible people -- such as the aforementioned Yiannopoulos -- have cottoned on to this unfortunate fact. And thus they have reinvented themselves from being horrible people into "free speech activists".

Yiannopoulos in particular, once a random blogger, became in Donald Trump's America a senior editor at the Breitbart News -- which is, besides Pravda, the closest thing to the current White House's Pravda -- and a spokesman for the victorious "alt-right".

He travelled college campuses stirring up anger against various minority groups, was invited to speak at the most influential gathering of traditional conservatives in America -- and even got an enviable book deal from Simon & Schuster, apparently because people are just dying to read incoherent racist comments from the back-alleys of the internet in long form, with a nice cover.

He only ran into trouble when somebody unearthed some old comments he had made in which, as The New York Times put it, "he appeared to condone sexual relations with boys as young as 13". He lost his book deal, and the American Conservative Union withdrew their invitation to Yiannopoulos.

Why had they extended it in the first place? "We initially extended the invitation knowing that the free speech issue on college campuses is a battlefield where we need brave, conservative standard-bearers," they argued. But the simple truth is that they, like so many of us, are falling into a trap being set for us.

The problem is simple: Just because some speech is unpopular, or protested by others, doesn't mean that you have to support its content, or provide it with a platform. If people on college campuses wish to protest Yiannopoulos, they have as much of a right as he does to speak.

And both their rights of expression have to take into account, in addition, what the college campus authorities themselves decide about how a university-supported platform should be used.

Freedom of speech is about freeing ourselves from state interference in what we say or write. Had a government tried to silence Yiannopoulos, then we should all have been up in arms.

If protests turn violent and intimidatory, then again we should be furious, because that means that government is allowing the freedom of speech to be circumscribed, by failing to do its duty to protect it. (This last is what generally happens in India.)

In other words, what conservatives should have sought out are occasions when government action is supporting the stifling of speech.

By falling into the trap of personally choosing to promote repugnant ideas just because others want to protest it, they have not promoted the cause of freedom of expression; they have merely disgraced themselves by associating with repugnant ideas.

For example, if you think Salman Rushdie -- say -- is a terrible writer, your response to the threats on his life should not be to yourself give him a book contract, but to demand that the government protects his right to life and to free expression, and the rights of those who read and publish him.

You are not bound to give a platform to a speech that you think is repugnant. Nor is a commitment to freedom of expression mean that you have to attack those who deny people platforms they control -- that is, in effect, attacking their own freedom of expression.

To insist that people's words must have no consequences in terms of our own private judgements and actions is as debasing to the discourse as insisting the government must censor us.

In other words, if an Indian publishing house turns down a Naxalite or an anti-Narendra Modi author because they think such ideas are repugnant, then they are perfectly within their rights to do so.

If they do so because they are worried about breaking the law or because of some other sort of reprisals, then their rights are being violated.

This is why Simon & Schuster's decision to give Yiannopoulos a book contract is as defensible in principle as their decision to withdraw it. The American Conservative Union's decision to invite Yiannopoulos is as defensible in principle as their decision to dis-invite him.

In each case, we can criticise or praise their judgement -- but it is not a free speech issue. When the Swedish video comedian Felix Kjellberg or "PewDiePie", a man with 50 million followers, was fired last week by Disney and YouTube for anti-Semitic comments, the companies were not attacking freedom of expression.

To prevent them from doing so, and thereby protect their brands and good name, would have been limiting freedom.

If Twitter takes a few Hindutva-vadi trolls off its platform, then their rights are not being violated; if the state asks Twitter to do it, then their rights are being violated.

The right to protest, or to ensure words have consequences, or to deny repugnant ideas a platform you control, are as essential a part of the right to expression as any other.

Don't let people with repugnant ideas abrogate your rights by taking advantage of your commitment to free speech.

Mihir S Sharma
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