Ban on BBC film wrong: Lee Bollinger

April 04, 2015 02:46 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:31 pm IST

The Indian government’s decision to ban the BBC documentary on the December 16, 2012 gang rape in Delhi, India’s Daughter , was “a mistake that must be corrected,” says one of the world’s foremost free speech experts.

“I think that is a mistake. Under international norms, Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights declaration [is very clear] that such speech, or films, should be protected. So I think it is a mistake… I hope it would be corrected,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, who is an author and First Amendment lawyer in the United States.

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu during a visit to Delhi, Mr. Bollinger said “conventional analysis” of free speech laws do not permit a government to prohibit speech on the basis that it makes its “society look bad.”

“It is not sufficient for a government to say this is dangerous because it might make people uncomfortable or hurt their feelings… People should be able to discuss public issues…and come to a judgement about what society’s response should be,” he added.

Mr. Bollinger has been caught in several controversies over free speech in the U.S. himself, where once he invited former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to address Columbia University.

The invitation was opposed by various student bodies, in a similar way that groups forced Wharton Business School to cancel an invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi (then the Chief Minister of Gujarat) in 2013 over allegations related to the Gujarat riots in 2002.

Calling the decision to rescind such invitations under public pressure a “travesty,” Mr. Bollinger said: “It is inconsistent with principles of free speech and academic excellence to cancel a speaker because someone objects to what he or she is going to say.”

Full text of the interview with Mr. Bollinger :

How does India rank in the world when it comes to free speech?

I think it ranks very high… it is a democracy and it has enshrined in its constitution the Right to Free Speech. I welcome the recent Supreme Court decision (on Section 66A of the IT Act) that upholds the right to free speech against attempts to regulate it online. Under international norms, in both the US and India, I think that was really a wonderful decision. Every society, even the most progressive ones, faces challenges to free speech and there are questions on the limits, sensitivities to religion, blasphemy, incitement to terrorism, etc. But on the whole, I think of Indian society as very committed to the freedom of speech

You mentioned the judgment on Section 66A. In this particular case, schoolgirls had been arrested by the government for simply ‘liking’ a Facebook comment or posting a comment there. Do you really think our society is as free, given that it is the courts and not the government that is enforcing free speech?

That is a good question. In the U.S., of course, it’s been only one century since cases on freedom of speech were taken up by the Supreme Court. Even though the first amendment is enshrined in our constitution since the 18th century, the jurisprudence we rely on is only 50-100 years old and it has gone back and forth. So, sometimes when society has been intolerant, the court has failed to uphold free speech and sometimes it has taken a strong stand. You always have a contest between legislatures and parliaments responding to people’s wish to be intolerant or to stop a certain kind of speech, and I think one of the great roles of an independent judiciary is to be the last standard for great principles of freedom of speech and press. So it doesn’t trouble me that India should be facing this kind of legislative and government efforts to restrict free speech and courts standing up for it. That’s always going to be the case, and we just have to ensure that institutions are strong to deal with that.

Are you saying courts mirror the tolerance levels in society?

In the US, the first few cases on free speech were in 1919, where the Supreme Court actually upheld the conviction of the speakers. Later, they delivered more liberal judgements. But in the 1950s and the McCarthy era, they caved in to public sentiment against free speech. It wasn’t till the 1960s that the courts really began to take a strong stand on these issues, so I think the tension is inevitable.

The international spotlight has been on the ban on the BBC documentary India’s Daughter . What are your thoughts on the case, given the ban was upheld in the courts?

I think that is a mistake. Under international norms, Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration [they are all very clear] that such speech, or films should be protected speech. So I think it is a mistake… I hope it will be corrected. One thing we realise is that it is extremely dangerous to ban speech, even speech that is hurtful to people, because those laws can be used so variously. You have to be extremely protective of speech. Incitement, defamation, obscenity can be prohibited, but speech on public issues is different. This is the heart of why we are committed to a democracy.

The government has made several points in its defence: that allowing the film would give sexist views, bordering on hate speech, a platform; that the film put India in a bad light, etc… how would you counter that?

Under conventional analysis, it is not permissible for a government to say this speech makes our society look bad. It is not sufficient for a government to say this is dangerous because it might make people uncomfortable or hurt their feelings. That is the rationale that is extremely threatening to the idea that people should be able to discuss public issues, sort out what’s good and what’s bad, and come to a judgement about what society’s response should be.

So what is the way forward? In a country like India where unbridled free speech is not an option, given the religious divides, the differences, given the fact that hate speech does trigger responses…

This is a very hard problem. In 1952, the Supreme Court allowed the state of Illinois to ban speech that was racist. But in later years, speech by Neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, very, very offensive speech, has been protected. Even though people from different groups feel highly threatened by it, we want the people to deal with these ideas themselves through speech. We don’t want the government to try and control what we can and cannot say. In a society that is fragile, where there is a major risk of eruption of violence, if it is well established that this is its history, I think there should be greater latitude for policies prohibiting such speech. In the global world, it is hard to see the need... Is it really a threat of religious violence as a result of certain speech or is it a pretext to allow things that the government should not be allowed to get into? That’s one of the great issues of our times.

What about the idea that you are giving a platform to speech that could incite violence?

When you have Neo Nazis or religious blasphemy for example… we know these are bad ideas. The marketplace of ideas doesn’t need to know them, so why do we allow them? Secondly, people are affected by it, minorities, women feel threatened by it. Since we don’t allow libel and fighting words, why not restrict this too? But the fact is you can respond through speech and say these are bad ideas. Every time we allow the government to do something with a seemingly good motive, it can easily be applied to other situations where it isn’t good. Suddenly, the government will intervene for perfectly reasonable speech as well. People are naturally intolerant, I believe. We insist that everyone should think like us. But democracies are like a wilderness, you need to deal with all kinds of ideas and find a balance to your views.

Columbia University was accused last year of shutting down protests against campus rapes, a name and shame campaign that had people writing names of suspected rapists on the walls. Is there a contradiction there?

No. We’ve done a lot to make sure women on our campus are protected, but equally we do not reveal the identities of people who have been assaulted and nor will we talk about individual cases. We have not penalised people for naming alleged rapists.

When you decided to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University, many people objected but you went ahead. In India there is an interest in such cases, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at Wharton was cancelled some years ago under similar circumstances. Where do you draw the line?

Free speech cannot survive as a principle if an argument can be made successfully that when you give a platform to someone to express what you call bad ideas, it means advancing the ideas, or approving of them. That is unacceptable. Every time someone wants to ban some speech, they will use that argument. Giving a platform is not bad. I defended bringing President Ahmedinejad, it had academic value, and he was the leader of a country. He didn’t go unchallenged; I challenged him at the talk. In the case of Wharton, I am distressed in the U.S. by the number of people who have been invited to speak and then had it withdrawn because of objections over the content of their ideas. I think that is a travesty; that should not happen at great academic institutions. It is inconsistent with the principles of free speech and academic excellence to cancel a speaker because someone objects to what he or she is going to say.

When it comes to protection of media freedoms, there is an argument today that speed is getting in the way of media accuracy, and that needs to be checked. Would you agree? I ask because you revamped the Columbia School of Journalism curriculum drastically to include theory and ethics.

There is no doubt that the sense of the public wanting to know “right now” makes it hard to get reflective, thoughtful journalism. The economic model of journalism is also a problem and I am distressed that just when we need more global reporting, we are getting less of it. So I do think there is a problem with the future of journalism, and that’s why universities need to work on training them better to be more reflective, understand issues more. For many years, there wasn’t a full embracing of journalism in academic communities. Many journalism schools are weak academically; they are vocational, and that must be changed. I have also found in the journalistic community, that there is “anti-intellectualism”. I have got a lot of criticism from journalists saying something like, “the less you know, the better a journalist you can be”. I thought that was crazy, as if knowledge somehow gets in the way of understanding things. That’s what I tried to change.

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