Freedom of Expression – Is There A Limit To Free Speech?

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Article 19 of the Indian Constitution deals with “freedom of expression” to safeguard individual human rights. Freedom of expression is the way to express one’s thoughts and ideas to the world without governmental retribution or repression. That’s our point of discussion in today’s post. Incidents like Tamil author, Perumal Murugan’s renunciation from his writing career, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon controversy followed by a severe terrorist attack in Paris are not stray contingencies. These types of happenings have become common worldwide. It brings forth “freedom of expression” to the center of international debate. Being an Indian, a common question naturally pops up in my mind. Do we really have the right to expression in its truest sense? Let’s delve into the matter.

Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution declares that the freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute unconditional right for the Indian citizens. It has qualifiers like security of the state, maintaining the sovereignty and integrity of the country, affable relations with foreign nations, contempt of court, decency, morality and inciting to offence to ascertain. The Supreme Court underlined the fact that any piece of artistic and poetic expression conferred obscene or breaking the rule is subject to prosecution.

So what is the importance of freedom of speech in a democracy?

Freely expressed ideas and concepts have brought paramount scientific, political and philosophical changes so far in our society. Society gets an impetus to move ahead with free ideas and thoughts. Freedom of expression:

  • Helps individual growth
  • Accelerates knowledge
  • Establishes peaceful societal changes
  • Maintains democracy

It’s important because freedom of speech in democracy allows people to make a clear choice based solely on his/her thought process, preferences and unbiased information. Freedom of speech enables people to make informed decisions. When a morally distasteful idea makes its way, ideally it shouldn’t be curbed. Rather, adding a voice makes it debatable. If it comes out to be irrational, we can quickly dismiss the idea without dragging it further.

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Freedom of expression brings in social order and safety along with it. One’s free expression can put at risk someone else’s well-being and reputation. On few issues governmental repression is needed to safeguard individual and societal sanctity. The Supreme Court in its recent verdict declared that freedom of speech has “constitutional limitation” and it categorically asserted that crude comments against historically respected personalities would be considered a breach of conduct and that the court would take an offence to it. Justice Dipak Mishra and P. C. Pant rightly conferred that freedom of expression begets a wider spectrum of interpretation but with a constitutional limitation attached.

If we look at social media and freedom of expression, we get to see wide array of incidents like the arrest of Jadavpur University Professor for sharing a lampoon against the Chief Minister, Thane girl’s incident and taking Aseem Trivedi into custody for satirizing the Parliament, ultimate release of Udta Punjab with one cut after getting the final release which initially was ordered by the Central Board of Film Certification to undergo 94 cuts which included deletion of few city and state references and the proposal to ban NDTV India, its Hindi news channel version on the coverage of Pathankot terror attack, which once again shows governmental attempt to curb the freedom of media and the citizens. However, the ban wasn’t inflicted on the channel whatsoever.

Constitution actually depicts that freedom of expression is still a fallacy in today’s context. Right to express is one of the key assurances of a civil society. If ideas are meant to get a voice then freedom to express oneself should be exercised with a sense of accountability. Freely expressed thoughts and ideas boost cultural development and establish innovation, variety and creativity in the society. Nevertheless, free flowing ideas always work as catalyst and if it’s rightly protected can create a long lasting positive impression on the society.

What’s your take on “Freedom of Expression”? How far should one be allowed to express his/her views?

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