Hate talk is not freedom of speech

2011-08-08 07:36

The much repeated quote that one may not shout fire in a crowded ­theatre tends to ignore the original text of US Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes’s exalted opinion.

Many of us tend to forget or not be aware that the learned judge actually said that one cannot “falsely” shout fire in such crowded circumstances when one knows it could “create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the ­substantive evils”.

As a media organisation we default on the side of maximum expression of views and opinions. Still, we adhere to the principle as enshrined in our Constitution that the right to freedom of speech, like all other rights, has limits.

Therein lies the view that the now former Sowetan columnist, Eric Miyeni, crossed the line. It is a view thankfully held by his previous ­employers. Miyeni falsely claimed that our writing about ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was doing the bidding of other forces.

There is also the matter of hate speech and a shocking indifference to the cost of speaking or writing without thinking.

Nobody in their right mind would glorify the dastardly act of putting a petrol-doused tyre around another human being’s neck and setting it alight until the person is ­reduced to a heap of ash, as Miyeni has in the name of free speech. Not only is this a glorification of barbarism but it is also an ahistoric ­delight in a past we would rather remember so ­as not to forget how base we can be. Hate speech has had devastating effects here, with many dying as a result of the necklace method about which Miyeni is so nonchalant.

The genocide that saw more than 800 000 people dying in Rwanda in 1994 was triggered by casual talk among the influential in society that reduced other human beings to mere “cockroaches” worth killing. To call another human being a “black snake in the grass” is hateful, dehumanising and potentially an incitement to violence against the person so labelled.

Nazi Germany also used hate speech to devastating effect. By the end of the second world war, 17 million Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and others decreed to be less human had been ­murdered.

To argue, as some have, that the media employs double standards and hoards freedom of expression for itself while it denies it for others is not only false, but a misplaced belief that it is a media standard and not a constitutional imperative.

Miyeni is free to shout fire if there is indeed a conflagration waiting to happen, but not when he thinks it is amusing or when it is an attempt to paint himself a hero unafraid to slay what he deems to be holy cows. As Judge Holmes posited in 1919, truth and public interest, not juvenile ­bravado, are essential elements when exercising this freedom we hold so dear.

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