Freedom of expression: where can we draw the line?
By: Rana Sajjad Ahmad
The writer is a graduate of Columbia Law School and a member of the New York Bar, is a partner at the Lahore-based law firm of Rana Ijaz & Partners
The blasphemous video, “Innocence of Muslims” has riled Muslims around the world and has, once again, sparked the debate over the issue of whether or not a person should have the right to express him or herself in a way and to an extent that he/she likes.
Cyberspace has added another dimension to this debate with social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter enabling people to have their expression, whether it is via a message or a photo or video, to be seen and heard a lot faster and by a lot more people, making its impact quicker, broader and stronger. Hence, the issue of freedom of expression has acquired even more significance.
The ‘freedom of expression’ absolutists advocate complete freedom of expression without any restrictions whatsoever. Then there are those who advocate imposition of reasonable restrictions on this freedom, especially when the unbridled freedom is likely to be offensive to a certain religion, race or ethnicity.
The US Government’s position on this video has essentially indicated that while the act is condemnable, no legal action can be taken against the producer as this act falls within his constitutionally protected right to express his opinion. This may be hard to swallow since it means that he can virtually get away with offending a large part of the Muslim community.
So, is there anything that can and should be done to prevent such ‘expressions’? One option is taking on the entity that is giving this producer the platform to broadcast his views. For instance, shouldn’t all the angry Muslims go after YouTube (owned by Google) and other business entities that let such a video go viral in the first place? Do these companies’ rules allow posting of such a video and if they do, shouldn’t these rules be revisited? Surprisingly, YouTube/Google’s rules do not prohibit posting of such a video because it does not promote hatred or incite violence.
Essentially, Google’s defence is that the movie itself is not inciting violence in the form of declaration of a war or a call for violence against a certain group — Muslims in this case. The violent reaction of the Muslims is not something the producer was inciting. Had the movie promoted hatred and incited violence among non-Muslims against Muslims, it would have been a slam dunk case of inciting violence. If not counterintuitive, Google’s defence is rather naïve and simplistic. The question is: Did the producer not expect Muslims to react in this manner? If he did, does it not constitute inciting violence?
Instead of getting into nuances and semantic differences regarding what constitutes inciting violence, how about simply having a sweeping rule prohibiting the posting of anything (message, photo, or video) that is clearly aimed at mocking or offending any religion? Who would disagree with such a rule and why? Why should someone be conferred the right to express opinions on another religion in such a patently offensive manner anyway?
Another option is compelling entities like YouTube/Google to comply with relevant local laws, if any, of the countries where they are doing business. In addition to preventing violent reactions in that particular country, this would also avert the possibility of shutting down of its website. The ban of YouTube in Pakistan is a case in point. This rather symbolic move may not be the most effective way of dealing with this issue but it certainly would hurt YouTube/Google financially.
Therefore, while upholding an individual’s freedom of expression, YouTube/Google has refused to prohibit posting of such a contemptible video in complete disregard for some of its users’ religious and cultural sensibilities. However, in view of the financial losses, it would at least make business sense for YouTube/Google to revise its rules to ensure that it does not lose more money while trying to champion the cause of freedom of expression of a few misguided and despicable individuals.