Editorial: A strong democracy in paradise

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There are many in our society who treat “free speech” with little respect.  There is little respect for the responsibilities that come with free speech and there is also scant regard to the right of persons to exercise free speech.  It is an interesting dilemma and made more difficult by the influences on our culture.  All of this has come to the fore because of the threats of defamation lawsuits and the actual lawsuits that have been initiated. 
Most people believe that we enjoy similar free speech right as our neighbours to the North, the United States of America.  The reality, however, is completely different.  Free speech in the United States is a well-entrenched and exercised right.  Even hateful speech enjoys a degree of protection under the First Amendment.  And while there are some clear lines as it relates to free speech, such as solicitation to commit crimes and perjury (to name just a couple), there are many more blurred lines when trying to define free speech in the US.
To get a better understanding of how the American courts view the subject of free speech, one can look at the litany of cases decided in the United States.  The case of Texas v Johnson is one of those cases that show just how entrenched and protected free speech is in the good ole’ US of A.  In that 1989 case, the decision of the majority of the Supreme Court justices invalidated prohibitions on desecrating the American flag; holding that the defendant Gregory Lee Johnson’s act of burning the flag was protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Chief Justice Roberts, in the written decision, noted the late Justice Brennan’s words, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the first amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
It is hard to imagine that the courts would protect something as sacrilegious as flag burning, especially when the flag embodies the concept of free speech that is being relied upon as a defence against the act.  It is beyond irony.  Like the United States, we have laws that govern our rights as well as laws that deal with defamation and it many ways they are the same as they are different.  Until recently, there was a criminal aspect to libel and slander; meaning you could be fined and confined.  That changed in 2015 with the introduction of The Defamation Act which removed the criminal component of defamation. 
That easement on the defamation side, also eased the free speech side but at the same time, it  fuelled the “Talk as yuh like” attitude that has exploded in our bit of paradise. Maybe it is because free expression is a relatively new thing to us and, like most things, subjected to a form of prohibition, people go overboard when that prohibition is lifted before reaching a balance. One must remember that the oppression of people in Antigua & Barbuda, and the wider Caribbean, has been going on longer than the enjoyment of freedoms. 
It also coincides with a greater influence of outside cultures.  This mixture helps create the ‘talk as yuh like do as yuh like’ culture that we live in today. And it brings us to search for a balance where free speech is responsible and respected. 
Many of our critics, driven by politics, will use the opportunity to say that we talk the talk but do not walk the walk. They will say that we are irresponsible with our free speech and are restrictive of others’.  That comes down to perception and while we can argue their perception, we, of course, support their right to criticise. That is part of free speech. The perspective that is missing, however, is that responsible free speech is a tightrope walk above a pit of defamation and censorship. Commentators complain of being censored and defamed never knowing of what is not published. Simply put, they don’t know what they don’t know.
Prowling the background of responsible free speech in paradise is the media and the job foisted upon us is to walk the tightrope – not just for our speech but for all those that utilise our media for their speech. Unlike our counterparts in the United States, we are completely responsible for the content on our website. In the US, online content providers are protected by what is known as Section 230. That section of the United States code states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  It is a foundation piece of legislation that protects free and open speech on the internet and the reason why sites like Facebook and others are not constantly sued.
Local parliamentarians have their own version of the US’ Section 230 in the form of parliamentary privilege. Ironically, free media, widely considered the guardians of democracy, have no such protections in this country and are forced by the laws to engage in a form of censorship by limiting contributors’ free speech which are deemed defamatory. That forces us into a position that we do not want to be in and creates a perception that we censor comments for purposes of self-interest.  When all is said and done, it is a case of ‘kill the messenger’.
We believe that we speak for all media when we ask for these restrictions to be removed and for legislation to be enacted that places the responsibility for free speech on the originator of that speech.   The freer speech is in a democracy, the stronger that democracy. So, let us all support free speech and create a stronger democracy.  

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