Free Speech: Do we Really Understand what it means?

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Since the state of emergency was put in place two months ago, there has been endless discussion about the extent to which our rights as citizens have been limited, and what the Government is now empowered to do.
I’m no expert on the constitution of this country, but from simply paying attention, and asking the right questions, it seems to me like the freedom of speech issue has been blown out of proportion.
When the honourable AG declared that social networking sites would be monitored for anti-government sentiment, as a response to the ignorant ramblings of a 14-year-old on Facebook and YouTube, things reached critical mass. How could he call for the imprisonment of a teenager, on charges that basically amounted to treason?
Here’s my take. While the AG’s response was overzealous (I doubt any citizen of T&T truly believed that a form one student had the resources to bomb the Prime Minister, especially when she was claiming to be a 60-year-old grandmother…) that child needed a hard slap. I completely disagree with just about everything the AG says and does, but I agree with those who felt that our Prime Minister sent the wrong message by pardoning her. If this was a 14-year-old boy, we would have been quick to assume he was in a gang, and that he did indeed plan to carry out his threats.
At the heart of the issue is this… while we do have the right to freedom of speech in this country, not all speech falls under the umbrella of free speech.
Full disclosure: my knowledge of the law in general is entirely predicated on years of “Law and Order” reruns, one media law course, and my magistrate mother. I am not an expert, so I won’t claim that what I’m about to say is entirely accurate or applies wholesale to Trinidad and Tobago. This is just my interpretation of what I know to be true, and the logic I think should be applied along with it.
In the United States, not as an example of an ideal, but simply as the only reference point for which I have verified factual information, the limitations to the first amendment, which includes the right to free speech, are as follows:
* Obscenity (anything that fails the Miller Three Prong Test).
* Fighting words (speech that incites violence).
* Imminent threats (clear and present danger).
* Fraud (false advertising).
* Defamation (libel or slander).
This means that even during “peaceful times” citizens are not allowed to breach these particular areas. Following this, why would they be allowed under a state of emergency?
In the case of the 14-year-old girl, I think we can all agree, that even before the SOE, her statements would have been a problem. What she said falls under the “fighting words” exception, and is NOT protected speech. We would still have had people calling for her to be arrested, jailed, questioned, or worse. The simple fact is that what she did was illegal. SOE or no SOE.
The fact that she chose to do what she did during a time of such unrest was simply an especially unwise decision on her part. Under US law (again, just as a verifiable example) that young lady would have been held responsible as a co-conspirator, if any random loon had indeed tried to assassinate the Prime Minister. Again, I think she needs serious licks.
What Trinidadians fail to realize is that “freedom of speech” does not mean “freedom to say whatever you please, whenever you please without fear of consequence”. It simply means that you have the right to express unpopular opinions.  It means you have to right to criticize the Government and the right to protest policies you don’t agree with. It means you are allowed to be racist or sexist, even though overwhelming public opinion finds it detestable. It does not mean you can threaten to kill the Head of State, or Prime Minister, in this case.
Some of the comments that flooded my newsfeed in the days following that incident made me very disheartened. It became clear that the vast majority of the population not only had no clue about their rights or how they were applied, but were also content to wallow in ignorance.
The level of panic that a few unsubstantiated rumours caused was amazing. Sarcastic comments about provoking action by criticizing the PPP and Facebook groups denigrating the Prime Minister were only a few of the things I saw. There was no need for all of the  “So I can’t express my opinion?” talk. There was no need for the “Big brother is watching”, and “I have a right to privacy” talk.
You have every right to express whatever opinion you wish, as long as said opinion does not breach the limits of free speech. Same as always.
I’m all for someone disagreeing with what I’ve said here. But I am only willing to listen to those who have thought out their dissenting argument, not those who are simply regurgitating what they have read. I can even say now that I’m perfectly willing to change my opinion, if I’m presented with compelling evidence.
A friend of mine said that he felt that the SOE was the best thing that could happen to Trinidad, if only for the fact that it has stimulated discussion about the issues among the youth, and forced the population to pay attention. I have to say I agree.
But the truth is, in all of this time, the only real problem I’ve had with the SOE thus far is the fact that I don’t believe we’ve been given a satisfactory reason for why it was implemented. And I’m free to say that, in the same way that anyone else is free to disagree. Trinidadians need to stop aligning their opinions along party lines and start thinking independently. That is the only way that we will ever start seeing any positive changes.
The attitude in Trinidad seems to be that words are just words. Unless, of course, a particular person finds them offensive. Then they become racist or violent, or any number of things that whomever can use to further a particular political agenda. This has to change. Not everything that offends someone is inherently offensive. But at the same time, not every opinion is sacred, permissible expression, or protected under the law. It’s time that Trinidadians recognized the difference between “ole talk” and free speech.

iheartfreespeechSince the state of emergency was put in place two months ago, there has been endless discussion about the extent to which our rights as citizens have been limited, and what the Government is now empowered to do. 

I’m no expert on the constitution of this country, but from simply paying attention, and asking the right questions, it seems to me like the freedom of speech issue has been blown out of proportion.


When the honourable AG declared that social networking sites would be monitored for anti-government sentiment, as a response to the ignorant ramblings of a 14-year-old on Facebook and YouTube, things reached critical mass. How could he call for the imprisonment of a teenager, on charges that basically amounted to treason?

Here’s my take. While the AG’s response was overzealous (I doubt any citizen of T&T truly believed that a form one student had the resources to bomb the Prime Minister, especially when she was claiming to be a 60-year-old grandmother…) that child needed a hard slap. I completely disagree with just about everything the AG says and does, but I agree with those who felt that our Prime Minister sent the wrong message by pardoning her. If this was a 14-year-old boy, we would have been quick to assume he was in a gang, and that he did indeed plan to carry out his threats. 

At the heart of the issue is this… while we do have the right to freedom of speech in this country, not all speech falls under the umbrella of free speech. 

Full disclosure: my knowledge of the law in general is entirely predicated on years of “Law and Order” reruns, one media law course, and my magistrate mother. I am not an expert, so I won’t claim that what I’m about to say is entirely accurate or applies wholesale to Trinidad and Tobago. This is just my interpretation of what I know to be true, and the logic I think should be applied along with it.

In the United States, not as an example of an ideal, but simply as the only reference point for which I have verified factual information, the limitations to the first amendment, which includes the right to free speech, are as follows:

  • Obscenity (anything that fails the Miller Three Prong Test).
  • Fighting words (speech that incites violence).
  • Imminent threats (clear and present danger).
  • Fraud (false advertising).
  • Defamation (libel or slander).

This means that even during “peaceful times” citizens are not allowed to breach these particular areas. Following this, why would they be allowed under a state of emergency? 

In the case of the 14-year-old girl, I think we can all agree, that even before the SOE, her statements would have been a problem. What she said falls under the “fighting words” exception, and is NOT protected speech. We would still have had people calling for her to be arrested, jailed, questioned, or worse. The simple fact is that what she did was illegal. SOE or no SOE. 

The fact that she chose to do what she did during a time of such unrest was simply an especially unwise decision on her part. Under US law (again, just as a verifiable example) that young lady would have been held responsible as a co-conspirator, if any random loon had indeed tried to assassinate the Prime Minister. Again, I think she needs serious licks. 

What Trinidadians fail to realize is that “freedom of speech” does not mean “freedom to say whatever you please, whenever you please without fear of consequence”. It simply means that you have the right to express unpopular opinions.  It means you have to right to criticize the Government and the right to protest policies you don’t agree with. It means you are allowed to be racist or sexist, even though overwhelming public opinion finds it detestable. It does not mean you can threaten to kill the Head of State, or Prime Minister, in this case.

Some of the comments that flooded my newsfeed in the days following that incident made me very disheartened. It became clear that the vast majority of the population not only had no clue about their rights or how they were applied, but were also content to wallow in ignorance. 

The level of panic that a few unsubstantiated rumours caused was amazing. Sarcastic comments about provoking action by criticizing the PPP and Facebook groups denigrating the Prime Minister were only a few of the things I saw. There was no need for all of the  “So I can’t express my opinion?” talk. There was no need for the “Big brother is watching”, and “I have a right to privacy” talk.  

You have every right to express whatever opinion you wish, as long as said opinion does not breach the limits of free speech. Same as always. 

I’m all for someone disagreeing with what I’ve said here. But I am only willing to listen to those who have thought out their dissenting argument, not those who are simply regurgitating what they have read. I can even say now that I’m perfectly willing to change my opinion, if I’m presented with compelling evidence. 

A friend of mine said that he felt that the SOE was the best thing that could happen to Trinidad, if only for the fact that it has stimulated discussion about the issues among the youth, and forced the population to pay attention. I have to say I agree. 

But the truth is, in all of this time, the only real problem I’ve had with the SOE thus far is the fact that I don’t believe we’ve been given a satisfactory reason for why it was implemented. And I’m free to say that, in the same way that anyone else is free to disagree. Trinidadians need to stop aligning their opinions along party lines and start thinking independently. That is the only way that we will ever start seeing any positive changes.

The attitude in Trinidad seems to be that words are just words. Unless, of course, a particular person finds them offensive. Then they become racist or violent, or any number of things that whomever can use to further a particular political agenda. This has to change. Not everything that offends someone is inherently offensive. But at the same time, not every opinion is sacred, permissible expression, or protected under the law. It’s time that Trinidadians recognized the difference between “ole talk” and free speech.

 

Image credit: blackgate.net

 

Check out the rest of this week’s issue (17/10/11; Issue 77):

Look out for a new issue of Outlish.com every Monday!

 

Catherine Young

Catherine Young is a serious journalist in the same way that Bridget Jones is a serious journalist. When not obsessing about being a singleton, Catherine is pursuing her love of fashion and photography. Follow her at on Twitter @promiscuouslola.

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