Patriotism, they say, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Freedom of expression, one should say, is the first refuge of those who would like to hide their biases under a bushel of self-righteousness.
This is something one can conclude after seeing how public platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and Apple behaved in the US after the 6 January riot by Donald Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill. Twitter’s arrogant response to the Indian government’s demand to comply with the law is Exhibit 2.
If Twitter is an upholder of free speech, I am Martin Luther King.
Let us be clear on one thing: no central or state government in our independent history can ever be accused of being an unblemished votary of free speech.
At best, they advocate selective rights to free speech just like Twitter’s chief executive officer Jack Dorsey did yesterday (27 May). If it’s someone who I like or who I agree with politically, it is free speech; if it is someone I disagree with, it can be dubbed “manipulated media” or even “hate speech”.
Dorsey, who did not have any trouble posing with someone who wanted to “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”, says that “We will continue to be strictly guided by…a commitment to …protecting freedom of expression and privacy under the law…”.
Ya, really? Why de-platform a sitting president in the US, where, even if you believe he indirectly exhorted his supporters to storm Capitol Hill, the limits to free speech are set by the US Supreme Court’s judgement in Brandenburg Vs Ohio, 1969. In this case, a Ku Klux Klan member, Clarence Brandenburg, advocated the use of force to protect White Caucasian interests, something which contravened Ohio’s laws against speeches that advocate violence.
But the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion, imposed a stricter test for deciding on the limits to free speech. It held that mere theoretical exhortations for the use of force or violence do not constitute a threat to free speech, unless there was a likelihood of “imminent lawless action”.
Whether Trump’s exhortations to his supporters crossed this line or not is anybody’s guess, but it is unlikely that any US court will debar Trump from speaking like he did before the storming of Capitol Hill. But Twitter came to its own judgement on this.
Indian laws on free speech are stricter, and they have been strong from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, who clamped down on Article 19, which promised freedom of speech and expression.
Nehru’s first amendment, which is the exact opposite of the US First Amendment which expanded free speech rights, imposed several blanket restrictions to such exercise of freedom. So, Twitter can hardly claim that it is trying to follow Indian law.
In its statement in India, Twitter also claimed that it does not restrict the views of verified accounts or news media accounts, “in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression".
Again, this is likely to be a falsehood, for Twitter has, on occasion, blocked one of my own tweets, which is a verified account. Either it believes that I am not a journalist or that I am not part of media.
Twitter is no defender of free speech. It believes only in the free speech rights of media it agrees with. It is an opportunistic defender of freedom of expression.
This is one reason why some states are considering restricting the right to de-platform anyone. Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, recently signed a law preventing social media platforms from de-platforming politicians.
The battle will probably end up in court at some point of time, for both its proponents and opponents believe this is a breach of the first amendment’s promise.
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