Permission to speak freely?

The January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris was a unifying and polarizing tragedy, galvanizing groups in support and condemnation worldwide. The Charlie Hebdo team used and continue to use their freedom of expression to lampoon commonly held ideas and beliefs, and 12 human beings were punished in the harshest way possible. Gunmen executed staff in their own offices, visitors and police before being taken down themselves two days later. Many news agencies around the world displayed the images of Muhammad that had been the subject of content, but many more did not. Their reasoning was that there was too much at risk to run the pictures. Fear of causing offence trumped the need to stand in solidarity against the suppression of freedom of expression.

After 9/11, people in countries that celebrated the attacks gathered and burned American flags and effigies. They used their limited freedom to express their views with an activity that, on American soil, could warrant a fine and up to a year in prison.

The freedom to speak out without fear for or against an ideology, a person, an event or an organization is held up as a benchmark of progress. The health of a country’s democracy is linked to the ability of its citizens to report, criticize and opine freely and openly. Countries where the press are attacked and imprisoned for reporting the truth, or where citizens are disappeared for speaking publicly in dissent, are often the same countries that populate the “Worst Human Rights Record” and “Most Totalitarian States” lists.

The United States lists the very first amendment as the one pertaining to free speech and the rights to freely exercise religion, indicating the value placed on rights of expression. These protections extend to everyone, so the group advocating for religious tolerance has as much right as the group protesting against sharing their neighborhood with those people. As long as there is no incite to hatred, no slander or libel, in the clear eyes of the law their view is just as valid and can occupy the same amount of airtime. The court of public opinion is often not as objective.

In the internet age, globally connected communities are discovering and reshaping the barriers of what this freedom allows. They are also pushing the envelope in terms of redressing the removal, denial or misuse of liberties, whether real or imagined. A person, business, organization or group that is thought to have acted incorrectly can be judged, targeted and punished for those actions, all through public participation.

Opinion is king in a world that depends heavily on speculation and forecasting. Books are badly reviewed and given low ratings, and algorithms based on community opinion will remove them from the front pages of seller sites, even if the critics never read the books in question. Businesses are similarly slated, often by strangers who have yet to set foot in the town the business operates in, potentially costing thousands in lost earnings and in turn affecting economic growth. Celebrities and public figures are policed by their followers and social media hawks, ready to pounce on questionable or ambiguous activity and posts to be used as evidence by both prosecution and defense in their trial by media.

Lives can be ruined in minutes after a person’s purported gaffe surfaces and is laid bare before the eyes of the public. Personal details and calls to action are posted by anonymous, would-be social activists. These social justice warriors will claim they are operating as a force for good, laying bare the wrongdoings of others for the world to see and judge. The innocent people who have been wrongly targeted by these e-mobs would beg to differ.

Where can a line be drawn then? The collective power of a free-thinking, freely speaking internet community is a recent and potent development, and legislative and judicial systems are trying hard to keep up. As the potential jurors and judges of our new global public forum, we also have a responsibility to learn how to see the difference, and connection, between the right to speak out and be spoken against; to offend justly, and be justly offended. We must learn to make informed decisions regarding information. The people who should be protected by free speech will otherwise continue to end up silent victims of louder and angrier voices.

Other articles in Freedom of Expression you might be interested in