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Free speech: limits needed, but just enough to keep system functioning

Being able to think limitlessly is more fundamental to a human being, than letting the given day’s socio-cultural constructs determine what to think. While the freedom to express protects one’s most basic human rights, some reasonable restrictions are required to protect the existing systems of which one is part of.

Ideas that define a nation, religion, community, God and governance have changed over time, and will continue to do so. Each new idea emerges as an improvement over traditionally-held ideas, with changing context of life and society. The fact that a new idea challenges the status quo means it will face resistance, but blocking that flow of ideas blocks evolution. Therefore, it is important that space be given for thinkers to express new ideas and discuss and debate their feasibility.

However, here a distinction is required in what challenges the status quo and what insults it. Society, culture, religion and politics provide a much-needed system and order for how we live. Though that system must change with time, the need of one cannot be neglected. So, we need just enough protective forces that keep a system in place: enough to allow space for new ideas, but not so much as to kill the order of the day.

Speech which can be perceived as “anti-national” may invite abhorrence, but as long as it is harmless, its expression must not be limited. In this respect, while freedom to express is still paramount, the implications of that expression cannot be ignored. Article 19(2) of the Constitution puts restrictions on free speech if it is against the sovereignty and integrity of India, national security, international relations, public order, decency or morality, or incites offence.

In today’s world, how a nation approaches ideas can have far-reaching consequences in terms of defence, economy, law and order, security and international cooperation. A new ideology challenging God may result in communal disorder if force is used to enforce that ideology. An idea which seeks a violent end to the current idea of a nation-state may result in a threat to national security. A policy which seeks an immediate end to capitalism may hurt the national economy, and policies which look for a sudden replacement of socialism with capitalism will hurt the most vulnerable citizens.

Ideas must constructively debate and consider; they must not threaten. Ideas must add to the discourse; they should not kill the current discourse. The way ideas are expressed must recognize that at best, they are in transition from one to another.

Expression of new ideas needs to accommodate what is traditionally held, recognizing the context in which the earlier ideas were formed, and appreciating their merits. This will ensure that a reasoned debate takes place and individuals on both sides of what is expressed can weigh what is and what can be.

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