Freedom of speech

| 17/06/2008

By Gordon Barlow – Posted Tuesday, 17 June 2008

3 comments

The term “freedom of speech” doesn’t actually appear in the Universal
Declaration.  Instead, “Everyone has the right to freedom of
expression [and] to hold opinions without interference and to receive
and impart information and ideas…
”  [Article 19]

“Freedom of expression” is a much wider term than “freedom of
speech”.  Freedom of expression is what those young men and women
were practising in the Youtube “dirty dancing” video that scandalised
everybody last week. 

Freedom of expression is protected in the US Constitution, which
explains why it’s not illegal there to burn US flags as a protest.
Freedom of expression is what allows Christian extremists here to wave
rude placards at Gay cruise ships – and it’s what allowed The Gay Kiss
at Royal Palms.

The composers of the Declaration were well aware that freedom of
expression would be taken advantage of by troublemakers. However,
rudeness and offensiveness must be allowed, if freedom is to mean
anything.

Most individuals belong to some religion or class or caste or other
group that fixes rules of behaviour for its members and takes offence
at outsiders’ transgressions – double-offence when those
transgressions are deliberate.

But the Declaration says, in effect, “too bad: live with it.”  By
all means disapprove of an outsider’s discourtesy,but remember that
he probably disapproves of something you do. Judge not, that ye be not
judged. 

As with freedom of religion, freedom of expression is all about
tolerance. And, unfortunately, tolerance is not a quality that most
religions set any store by.  Gods tend to be jealous gods. The
ancient Israelites were not the first tribe to realise that.

In fact, most religions these days say there is only one god, and it
belongs to them alone, and it is blasphemy not to credit it with every
good thing that happens in life.  Rival belief-systems are not
only wrong but evil, and freedom of expression should be denied them.

Obeah ladies are sent to prison in Cayman.  Some of our Christian
extremists would ban all other religions from making public
statements, and the thought of a mosque in Cayman gives them the
heebie-jeebies.

Our MLAs are about to pass a new law restricting private lawyers’
freedom of speech.  Most of our public commentators in recent
decades have always hidden behind aliases, for fear of being punished
by the authorities.

Our main instrument of censorship is the Work Permit system. 
Migrant workers and their families know pretty much from Day One that
criticising government policies, or offending any person of influence,
can result in deportation.  Caymanian employers are warned to
keep their workers in check, and their spouses too.

Two years ago, six migrant construction workers were deported in a
blaze of publicity for claiming the right to freedom of
expression.  By publicly protesting to the Labour Office that
they had been cheated of some wages, they broke our unwritten
censorship code, and the Immigration Department punished them for it.

The publicity ensured there has never been a similar protest
since.  Nor has anything been heard of the nascent labour-union
of a few years ago.  Even the International Labour Organisation,
the world’s greatest protector of exploited migrant workers, is
powerless against the combined authority of the British Foreign &
Commonwealth Office and our own MLAs. 

Gordon: Chris – you rather miss the point.  The
purpose of the Universal Declaration is to urge governments to
permit freedom of expression as a basic human right, even in the
face of opposition.  Of course there will sometimes be rudeness
– some of it deliberate – but that usually lies in the eye of the
beholder.  The Nazi Government in Germany punished people
for saying, writing and doing things that were anathema to that
government.  The Declaration declares the basic human right to
offend a Nazi Government and its supporters, or (for instance, and
equally) a Christian Government and its supporters.

The right to freedom of expression is an ideal for governments to aim
for.  Sometimes exercising the right will be offensive to some
readers or onlookers – just as those readers’ or onlookers’ objections
and criticism will presumably be offensive to the original
offenders.  In practice, there will usually be local laws
allowing offenders to be arrested for “creating a public nuisance” or
some such.  Maybe that was the Nazis’ excuse for prosecuting some
of their critics. The ideal is worth protecting.  Indeed,
any government that fails to protect it cannot be trusted to protect
any other fundamental human rights.


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