The Cost of Free Speech

Pardon my French

This article appeared on the Malta Independent on Sunday 13th April together with the above Bertoon illustration (copyright reserved by Bertu).

Express Yourself

Sometime last week, a reader on my blog warned me that if I persisted in comparing Daphne Caruana Galizia’s style to that of Manuel Cuschieri I could be facing a libel suit. My curiosity was tickled and I was attracted to this challenge like a moth to a nightlight. During the hustle and bustle of the electoral campaign libel suits flew from left to right and vice-versa as the third branch of our separated powers was called to arbitrate between the pretenders to a place in at least one of the two other branches. The vicissitudes of an election campaign numb us from appreciating the fact that this overuse of the libel suit has diluted its value and transformed it into a method of fleeting validation – in the sense that once a libel suit is initiated the offendor is temporarily presumed guilty by the population who assumes that the libelled persona would not have started the suit had he not been sure of winning it.

But I am not here to remind you of how politicians have transformed the libel suit into an electoral weapon of convenience. I was interested to discover that a columnist could adopt the same tactics vis-a-vis the opinion of another person. It said alot about the way we think and the way we value the expression of opinions. Bloggers tread a dangerous field in this sense. Locally and internationally, blogs have often been vilified as the depositories of opinions of all sorts that cannot be vetted and that do not have the training or experience to offer quality opinions. Does that detract from the right of a person to express his or her opinion? Not really.

So back to the issue. When I say that Daphne’s Blog reminds me of Manuel Cuschieri’s radio programmes I express a personal opinion. Daphne knows what it means to express an opinion about a blog and its readers.. here’s a taster of her comments on my blog:

“the point I’ve been making all along in this blog is that the 30-something men in this discussion are mainly suffering from development problems – hence, as you notice, the pubertal phase they seem never to have left. They all seem to be men-on-the-shelf with problems. (…) I see this blog isn’t just packed with strange single men, but also with jealous little bitches – the sort of creature I have had to put up with for most of my life, and to which I am well accustomed.”

She has more about my blog readers’ political acumen. “It’s important to bear in mind, if you’re going to survive here, that you’re dealing with political illiterates who don’t know anything about strategy, haven’t a clue how the electoral system works (though they want to reform it) and haven’t even bothered to read the electoral programmes of the party they hate (PN) or the ones they love (AD and MLP).”

Libel material? Not really. For me to say that the statements are packed with untruths and biased assessments would be superfluous. Let the reader be the ultimate judge I say. And that is essentially what I believe to be a fundamental point in this issue. I am not even sure whether Daphne would consider suing a person for libel because she has been compared to Manuel. Nor am I sure whether Manuel would do so, for what that matters. What worries me is that persons visiting the blog can be conditioned by the use of this extreme threat. I would go so far as to call it the conditioning of the freedom of expression through the abuse of the libel suit.

The Ties that Bind Us

In a democratic society the freedom of expression is a fundamental right. At law school we learn that freedoms cannot be used indiscriminately and the natural limit on freedoms is one that is measured by the effect that their use can have on others. You are free to “use” a freedom insofar as your use of such a freedom does not harm others. Laws that embody such principles are to be read accordingly. In principle you are free to say what you like so long as what you say does not harm others – or incite others to cause harm to others (when we are referring to speech or print).

“Legum servis sumus, ut liberi esse possimus”. We are servants of the law so that we may be free. Our society lives in relative freedom because of observance of the laws and not in spite of that. Much has been made about this argument of freedoms and their exercise by that paladin of selective libertarians who goes by the name of Lowell. Lowell is right. It would be a shame were we to resort to laws to gag people up. Just as it is a shame to spread the culture of libel suits to instil fear on people who begin to fear to express themselves lest they have to face a court suit.

What Lowell and that other pseudo-libertarian crusader of the Alpha Party fail to distinguish is between the freedom of expression and the limits that an intelligent user of such a freedom should impose upon himself. Because a libertarian/liberal society is not a pick and mix. Pontificating from the steps of the Courts of Justice just after the first judgement Lowell referred to “the fable of six million dead”, surely feeling confident in his newfound guise of palladin of free expression. In my books that is a reference that is tantamount to Holocaust Denial – something I find repulsive.

Not many will agree with me on this but even in this circumstance I would tend to allowing the people to judge. The man who advocates the use of eugenics, leaving Africans in Africa and speaks in “racialist” terms in the mistaken illusion that it is in any way different from “racist” should be left to speak his mind. So long as there is no incitement to hatred we should all be allowed to see the sorry plan as it is. The people have judged Lowell and I am confident that they are fully capable of judging once again without a court of law.

The biggest declaration that shouts “What you are saying is utter and complete rubbish” is not the court sentence and fine but the votes of the people who have constantly rejected his attempts at being elected. Frankly I think that even a forum such as Bondiplus is too big for his boots. People will warn me. Don’t write anything bad about him and his followers or you face retribution. Surely I do not face being silenced with libel suits? More of the same? Too contradictory I guess.

Everybody’s Talking

Communication. Modern communication gives us more tools to express ourselves. It’s not just the tools but the exposure afforded by such tools that is important. Ideas can become global before you know it. Take internet “virals” for example. They are phenomena that are pushed on by the curiosity of the reader – a funny video, a joke, a good article becomes popular because it is forwarded and forwarded and like a deadly virus the multiplier effect is “deadly”. The multiplication of this kind of expression comes at a cost. You now have to sieve through more and more information to find quality. It’s not only about what you like but also about what is reliable in an objective sort of way.

There’s news and there’s opinions and they are both travelling fast. Combine that with the new medium of Wi-Fi and you will begin to understand how this will revolutionise not just how we get information but also how we process it. The city of Luxembourg has a project to cover the whole city with a Wi-Fi network. That means that no matter where in the city you are – on a park bench, at home, in a café, in a shop – you will have access to the internet. This revolution is being compared to the revolution brought about by the introduction of the car. It affects architecture, urban design and planning, industry and more.

How does this affect the discussion on the freedom of expression? We need to stop looking at the new forms of expression as some form of curse. The internet is not about porn, chatting programs and infidelity. We need to jump on the bandwagon and enable as much participation as possible. At the same time we need to purge the effects of decades of political monopolisation of civic debate and learn to engage in healthy forms of discussion. Minus the insults. Minus the hatred. Minus the intolerance. Stop shooting the messenger and start engaging the message. Malta cannot afford to lag behind in this mental and technological revolution.

What happens in Malta is not much different from what happens elsewhere. Elsewhere blog discussions are hijacked, diffidence of the power of the net is ripe and far right loonies get imprisoned for inciting racial hatred. What we need is a national project and effort to face this new exciting and challenging reality. The government has its feelers out – it has attracted some kind of investment. Let me be blasphemous – I believe that IT and its usage should become part of our culture. Fast. That is one guarantee that we will jump to the forefront of our European neighbours.

Opinions are Like Balls

Everybody has them. Is a quote from Clint Eastwood. Of course female readers would differ (although in Italy the latest craze seems to be to identify the woman politician “con gl’attributi”). I guess the quote would not sound so good if it were “opinions are like backsides”… but anyway you get the gist. Having an opinion is an important step in democratic participation. Being able to form one is another. Many still labour under the mistaken impression that having an opinion is enough. They fail to grasp the fact that engaging in debate that questions that very opinion – especially with people who might disagree outright is just as important and should be just as fundamental a right. The culture of debate is far from being Maltese. As yet.

Lowell was right when he said that freedom of expression should not have parameters imposed from the outside. In an ideal society where every person expresses their opinion maturely and with respect to the opinions and rights of others there would be no need of such parameters. I believe that Malta does not need a crusade of faux libertarians or libel suits to determine what such parameters might be. The laws are there as ultimate guardians when someone oversteps the limit. Beyond that the forum is and should remain open. Express yourself. Criticise responsibly and ultimately society itself will be the judge. As it always should have been.

We meet again

I feel the need to apologise because this article might have been a bit heavier than my usual style but this freedom of expression business is one that I take to heart. On a lighter note let me share with you this surreal picture I imagined when I heard that Charlton Heston passed away. Mr Heston spent the last years of his life advocating the cause of another freedom – the right to bear arms. Thankfully he will be remembered for much more majestic roles such as Ben Hur and of course, Moses. I remember watching the colossal film “The Ten Commandments” on the zuntier at Marsalforn Church thanks to il-Kappillan. I remember watching in awe as a child as the fiery bush spoke to Moses and then again when Heston’s face turned gold when facing the Lord as the Commandments got carved on the tablets.

It was this memory of this first meeting with God that came back to mind with the news. I imagined Heston, having passed the preliminaries at the pearly gates coming face to face with the Almighty (Michelangelo style) and hearing the voice from the heavens (actually I think it is the Metatron – His Master’s Voice) saying “So. We meet again”.

Silly really. Would have done a nice cartoon theme for Bertu but we had other things in mind for that. Until we meet again remember… Express Yourself.

Jacques René Zammit blogs daily on Comment is free.


7 responses to “The Cost of Free Speech

  1. Jacques, Allow me to thank you for a brilliant post. Thanks.

    I was also thinking about freedom of speech yesterday and this culture of libel suits. This, along with the fear that people could burn your car or door if you say something they don’t fully agree with, might deter many from expressing themselves I’m afraid.

    I don’t believe that you need to apologise for the fact that your post is “heavier than usual”. As Sandro told me once: “the duty of the reader is to read”. If they don’t want to read, it is their loss.

  2. My congratulations Jacques.

    Somebody voted for this blog post. This vote is valid for the blog of the month (April 2008) and also the blog of the year (2008)

    The voter’s reaction is as follows:

    It is a brilliant post. Do I need to say more? 🙂

  3. “The culture of debate is far from being Maltese. As yet.”

    You’re dead right about this one – probably for the same reasons why the contestants on Grande Fratello can’t have any frank debate – they’d get booted out of the game by their chums. So instead they keep playing the role assigned to them.

    On a different note, it’d be rather interesting academically to see you sued on these grounds. 🙂

    Because then the plaintiff would need to prove that being compared to EC damages their reputation…and wouldn’t THAT be an interesting one to read?

  4. My congratulations Jacques,

    Another person voted for this blog post.

    His/her thoughts and reasons:

    I voted for this blog entry because I agree with what is stated in the post, namely that bloggers and other free opinionists should not be intimidated and should be free to express themselves, provided they themselves allow for a right of reply.

    I particularly agree with Jacques’ comment on a particular “blogger” who persistently insults other bloggers and their readers, but who is not “woman enough” to allow criticism on her own “blog” unless it is mild criticism. But perhaps we give such persons too much importance. Then again, sometimes one needs “fillers” for one’s blog.

  5. fabrizioellul

    opinions are like arseholes too – everyone has one

  6. Pingback: The cost of Free Speech - J accuse « …The ‘L9′ Conspiracy Theory…

  7. Very interesting post!

    The only problem I see with the “incitement” part is: at what stage can you really say that a person is inciting hatred? I have recently heard a person say that “Muslims should be killed like cockroaches”. Her comments were pretty harsh and could have been regarded as inciting hatred towards Muslims. Does this mean that some type of action should be taken against her? I think that people should be free to speak their minds about various issues, but it is then the State that should try to educate the masses about positive values such as tolerance, integration, and so on.

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