Inside Labour: The right to free speech is a double-edged sword

Terry Bell. Picture: Supplied
Terry Bell. Picture: Supplied

This week ended with the 20th anniversary of the adoption of our Bill of Rights and justly lauded Constitution.

It is also a time of considerable political and economic turmoil, nationally and globally and when some of the rightly praised clauses of the Bill of Rights are under threat.

Trade unions are very much in the midst of this, although few, if any, seem aware.

The most imminent threat comes in that legislative mouthful, The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.

This at a time when, as the reputable Reporters Without Borders organisation notes: “There is a deep and disturbing decline in media freedom.” And such a decline has the knock-on effect of self censorship.

Unlike China, Syria and Turkey, which lead the way in jailing journalists, most parliamentary democracies rely on laws, apparently designed for the public good, to hamper free speech.

So in some countries “insulting the president” or “exposing state secrets” results in prison terms.

But it is not just journalists who are the targets of those opposing the constitutional right to free speech and opinion. This applies right across the board.

Take a recent case in France where a Christian Democratic politician was fined for hate speech when she referred, using the Biblical term from the Book of Leviticus, to homosexuality as “an abomination”.

I find this attitude deeply offensive, but, as our Bill of Rights states, free speech is guaranteed, not the right not to be offended.

In fact, we have the constitutional right to express ourselves as we wish, provided that we don’t make propaganda for war, incite “imminent violence” or advocate hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, but only when this “constitutes incitement to cause harm”.

And if anyone “unlawfully, intentionally and seriously impairs the dignity of another” this constitutes the legal offence of crimen injuria.

The adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is not strictly true. Words can hurt, but censorship is a much greater danger.

The “Hate Speech Bill” proposes fines or a prison sentence of three years for a first offence and ten years for a repeated offence.

It may be found to be unconstitutional and certainly seems unnecessary.

However, we are already on a slippery slope that began with a court ruling that singing the historic anti-apartheid song, Dubul’ ibhunu (Shoot the boer) is illegal.

In context, iBunu (or iBulu) did not mean farmer, but the forces of apartheid, especially the police.

So if, as often occurs, a worker refers to a miserly boss as a “capitalist pig” does this constitutes hate speech that should face the force of the law?

Or should it merely open a debate about exploitation?

History has shown that it is impossible to legislate thought. Punitive laws just intimidate and drive obnoxious notions underground where they can fester and multiply in secret.

So let the racists, homophobes, sexists and assorted bigots have their say, subject to existing laws against incitement to violence. And then let them be confronted, named, shamed and shunned.

* Terry wishes all readers the best for the festive season and the new year


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