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Benny Tai Yiu-ting

Four things Benny Tai should know about ‘free speech’ and the clash of freedoms

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 12:52pm

Recent remarks by an academic about Hong Kong independence have raised questions about restrictions on the freedom of speech, which may be necessary to prevent clashes of freedoms and to maintain a certain distribution of overall freedoms.

Restrictions on freedom of speech may be justified under the following circumstances: first, if the speech violates a law, be it criminal, civil or constitutional. The absence of procedures to prosecute such a violation does not change the illegal nature of the speech.

Second, if the speech may cause danger to public safety, as in crying “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. The speech becomes a speech-act if it incites action.

Third, regarding academic freedom in particular, a speech is not an academic exercise in search of the truth if it is one-sided, and does not include different or opposing perspectives in appropriate detail.

Fourth, if the speech is inconsistent with societal norms, such as a discussion on “efficient ways of murder”, or “pleasures derived from rape”. These topics, however “academic”, are likely to be considered unacceptable for any kind of public discussion.

Political abuses of freedom of speech, academic freedom in particular, may invite political reactions stifling existing freedoms. An academic ceases to be telling the truth if he or she becomes a partisan. Speaking truth to power cannot be done if the purpose is to gain power or influence.

Michael Ng-Quinn, professor of political science, University of Redlands, California