MyNews24 | Freedom speech vs hate speech: Does the 'anti-Christian' matric artwork cross the line?

2019-10-23 13:06

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On Tuesday, South African social media caught wind of a video of a matric pupil's father expressing his view that a matric art project is "anti-Christian" and ungodly. The project depicts artworks of, among others, Jesus and the McDonald's clown mascot, Ronald McDonald.

In a recent academic paper Jacobs van Rooyen writes: "Dignity, religion and freedom of expression in South Africa" "The effect of freedom of expression can, at times, be a painful experience, but that is the price once has to pay in a free and open democracy for the right to partake in that freedom."

There are often cases where the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion come into conflict with one another. As Erica Howard writes in the Human Rights Law Review, "the right to freedom of expression does not only apply to speech/art that is favourably received, but also to speech that offends, shocks or disturbs. The right includes criticising beliefs. You may express yourself, but you will be open to criticism."

At the same time, there is often a fine line between hate speech and freedom of speech. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who was found guilty of hate speech after expressing Islamophobic views, claimed that he was simply expressing his right to freedom of speech. So the legal question and societal issue in this current debacle is whether the matric pupils committed hate speech or was simply exercising their freedom of expression.

In an article on his blog site, "Constitutionally Speaking," Prof Pierre de Vos states that the Constitutional Court has "spoken for the need for our laws reasonably to accommodate the religious differences between us… as long as it does not fundamentally limit our ability to live our lives as we see it fit. An atheist is entitled to say that God is dead."

De Vos goes on to mention the scandals that cartoonist Zapiro had previously gotten himself into by offending members of the Muslim and Hindu community with his cartoons. "Religious beliefs of some could not be used to trumps the freedom rights of others, and Zapiro cannot be prohibited from drawing a cartoon that offends some people. To allow that would be to allow the religious views of some to dictate to others what they can and cannot do and say, thus dominating the rights of a religious group and oppressing the rights of others."

In 2014, there was a by-law that was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in Gauteng. The by-law stated that they do not allow advertising/art that is "insensitive to the public, or any portion thereof, or to any religious or cultural group". BDS South Africa, a collective boycott group had previously put up billboard that expressed disdain for Jewish folk in Israel who were oppressing Palestinians. Jewish organisations put pressure on having the advertisements removed and used the previous Johannesburg by-law.

If we return to the original legal, societal question/issue that I posed and considering some of the sources I've read and acknowledging the video and content of the artwork, I think, in my opinion, that the matric pupil expressed their right to freedom of expression. Yes, the artwork can be interpreted as exceptionally offensive to Christian people, and by all means, Christians must definitely express their disdain for it, but I also think it is important to allow for such criticisms, expressions and discussions to take place in our constitutional democracy.

There is definitely ongoing inconsistencies and uncertainties regarding the right to freedom of expression. It should be noted that intention, context and content are crucial to this and to determining whether it is actually freedom of speech/expression, or hate speech.

Remember that our constitutional democracy is still young, and developments of determining the two are still ongoing. However, it is important to note that our court system and the Human Rights Commission do have a role to play in this.

Read more on:    hate speech  |  freedom of expression
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