The Crossroads Toward “Free Speech”

By: Emmanuel Utibe

On the 27th of April, 2022, it was announced that the Biden government had set up the “Disinformation Governance Board” under the United States Department of Homeland Security.

People on the Right Wing went on to call it the “Ministry of Truth”- a reference to George Orwell’s 1984, a book famous for the phrase, “Big Brother’s watching”.

The idea is that society is tilting toward a corrupt society, as described in George Orwell’s book, where the government has control over what people can or can not say.

While this would seem far-fetched and has a political undertone – as the government clearly states that this was set up to help the DHS combat disinformation and fake news, most especially, from foreign sources. It comes back to the global effort against fake news, hate speech, and disinformation in general and where it all stands in the face of “the right to freedom of speech” as enshrined in the Geneva convention and the constitution of 80+ countries.

On the 22nd of April, 2022 – early hours of the 23rd for us in Nigeria – news came out that Elon Musk had finally been successful in his acquisition of Twitter, having purchased it privately at $44B, one of the largest acquisitions of a tech company in years.

According to Musk, taking Twitter private was because he regards himself as a “free speech absolutist” and the act of Twitter – like several other social medias – suppressing certain controversial topics was against free speech and should not be.

This further aligns with the Right Wing’s position on free speech, one of the main reasons many of them came on Twitter to celebrate it, like it was a sport’s victory. For those on the Right, it has been held that speech, even in its basest of forms, should be absolute and not restricted. As they would like to point out that, the pillars of our democracy like press freedom and the likes are hinged on this right to freely express oneself in speech.

However, in all of these, there are problems to either of the positions. For those who always hold on to their right guaranteed by the First Amendment in the USA and in their various constitutions in whatever country they are.

First, it’s a basic principle in law that, rights are limited. For one, we all have rights and so invariably when our rights overlap, they limit one another.

Asides that, we know that rights are privileges granted by the state, which could also be overturned in situations where required.  For example, by a court judgment, my right to life could be taken away; my right to freedom of speech cannot stop me from being sued for defamation; freedom of association and yet nobody would think my right allows me to join a terrorist organisation.

This is to imply that while it may seem silk on the fingers, smooth and graceful from the tongue, a free speech absolutist is not something that is so realistic after all.

Now to the other end, the regulations on free speech. The dilemma is BIAS, a default feature of the human brain. The problem of who is doing the regulation and who is setting the guidelines? Whosoever it is, when you factor in the fact that no matter how much they would try, there would still be an element of bias in whatever they do, this ultimately throws a wet blanket over the idea of regulations.

Quick example, in Nigeria we once had the issue of the social media bill and the hate speech bill, now these bills were brilliant at what they were meant to do, regulate disinformation, fake news, hate speech, and the use of social media to spread these things. Yet, these were proposed laws that were largely kicked against by the public because of the problem of who determines the guidelines?

If the government gets more control over citizens, it would leave a supposedly democratic government acting authoritarian. If a journalist writes tomorrow about how the current Nigerian government is a government of lies; if the government was the regulator of speech, it could easily come down to this journalist for hate speech, despite the truths in the statements. Now, this alone poses a threat to the opposition, the press- the Fourth Estate of governance, and democracy at large.

However, whatever route we eventually ply toward the actualization of free speech, as humans, let’s always see that it’s towards the betterment of humanity.

Leave a Comment