The top judge has reiterated the "cardinal importance" of freedom of speech, days after his predecessor warned Hongkongers to be "highly vigilant" of its erosion in the city.
Calling freedom of peaceful assembly and speech both "basic human rights", Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li yesterday said the court would interpret the Basic Law in a generous - rather than narrow and rigid - manner to protect such rights.
"These freedoms are of cardinal importance for the stability and progress of society," Ma said. "The resolution of conflicts … through open dialogue and debate is of the essence of a democratic society."
Ma's selection of these paragraphs from a 2005 judgment - upholding lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung's conviction of holding a procession without notification but a landmark approval of the constitutional freedom to peaceful assembly - comes amid growing public concern over what many see as a narrowing scope for freedom of speech.
Ma's retired predecessor Andrew Li Kwok-nang last week warned Hongkongers to be vigilant of its erosion when asked about last month's brutal attack against former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to.
In his speech at Lingnan University yesterday, Ma also called for respect of others' rights - a statement which follows a year in which the Court of Final Appeal granted a transsexual woman the right to marry, and cut mainland immigrants' residency time to qualify for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance from seven years to one.
The issues were met with protests, but in the lecture at Lingnan University yesterday, the top judge shrugged off such populist disapproval, pointing to a poll conducted a day after the CSSA decision, in which 94.8 per cent of respondents opposed the ruling.
"Often, the public's view of the law is measured by its satisfaction with the outcome of a case," Ma said. "Polls taken after a decision of the court reflecting satisfaction or dissatisfaction … perhaps matter little in the overall scheme of things. What really matters is confidence in the system of law ... in the belief that the courts are independent."
Ma said public respect of others' rights preceded the so-called Hong Kong spirit, defined customarily by hard work and economic well-being in guaranteeing the city's success. He added Hong Kong had always been tolerant of refugees and had never simply turned them away.
"It is respect for others that provides the necessary cohesion to withstand the inevitable pressures and challenges," he said. "Minority views may be disagreeable or even offensive to others. But tolerance is a hallmark of a pluralistic society," he said.