‘It is extremely dangerous to ban speech, even if it is hurtful’

Interview with Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger.

April 04, 2015 02:14 am | Updated April 02, 2016 02:07 pm IST

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger

Lee C. Bollinger is one of the U.S.’s foremost free speech experts, and practised as a lawyer for first amendment cases. He is also the president of Columbia University in New York, and has advocated inviting controversial speakers to the University despite strong objections. He spoke to Suhasini Haidar on the status of free speech in India and the U.S., discussing issues ranging from the ban on the BBC documentary India’s Daughter to the Supreme Court verdict on Section 66A, to the U.S. university that cancelled its invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak some years ago. Excerpts:

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 U.S. 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 case, schoolgirls were arrested for simply ‘liking’ a Facebook comment. Do you really think our society is as free, given that it is the courts and not the government that is enforcing free speech?

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.

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 [is 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 said that allowing the film would give sexist views a platform; that the film put India in a bad light, etc… how do 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.

What is the way forward? In a country like India where unbridled free speech is not an option, given the religious divides, 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.

When you decided to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University, many people objected but you went ahead. Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to speak 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 Ahmadinejad, it had academic value, and he was the leader of a country. He didn’t go unchallenged; I did speak and challenge 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.


(Click >here to read the full text of the interview).

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