Waris Husain Editorial: The Petrifying Power of Speech

The shootings of Salman Taseer and Congresswoman  Giffords have exposed a deep division between the liberals and conservatives in both Pakistan and the United States. While the mass murder in the U.S. which targeted Giffords was carried out by a deranged individual, commentators have criticized the militaristic tone of the Tea Party as one factor to the tragedy. If one examines the violent rhetoric that preceded the assassination of Salman Taseer by conservatives in Pakistan, one can see the frightening power of speech in certain environments. Subsequently, the ultra-conservative lawyers’ movement has come out in defense of Salman Taseer’s assassin. And while Tea Party leaders and Pakistani conservative lawyers have a right to free speech, they also owe a duty to the public to not cause imminent harm with that speech. 

A judicial punishment is rarely the appropriate remedy to cover the rhetoric being injected in an increasingly hostile society by leading conservatives in the U.S. and Pakistan, because political speech traditionally is one of the most coveted rights in a democracy. However, there are certain lessons that can be learned by examining the legal limitations placed on the freedom of speech, both for citizens and their leaders to begin a conversation that could inspire progressive developments.

Under American jurisprudence, even the most conservative justices have held that the government’s right to restrict speech is far less significant than a citizen’s right to express his political beliefs. A major case that discussed the limitations on speech was Schenck v. United States, where Justice Holmes famously stated that no man has the right to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater because it would harm the general public.

Using this standard, one should look to the U.S. as a ‘theater’ that is already panicked without the Tea Party stoking its flames because of the looming recession and the increasingly sense of xenophobia towards all non-white Americans, whether they be Latino or Muslim.  In the aftermath of the first black president being elected to office, there has been a rise of anti-minority rhetoric amongst right wing groups far more extreme than even the Tea Party.

However, rather than attempting to downplay this divisive rhetoric in hopes to include moderates as well as hard-liners in their fold, the Tea Party has continued to utilizedisruptive language and has hastened the society’s descent into hate and fear. Further, one should look to the McCarthy era accusations of anti-American directed toward liberals who supported universal health care.. Most importantly, the advocacy of gun rights in a nation where 20,000 people died in 2007 due to gun-related incidents is further proof that the Tea Party and its affiliates are shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.

Unlike the United States, where individuals have a marketplace of ideas and there is usually a 50-50 split as to liberal and conservative political speech, Pakistan’s media and schools are dominated by the conservative agenda. One way to understand why the lawyers’ movement should reexamine its position in support of religious fundamentalists is to understand the limitation on political free speech under Brandenburg v. Ohio. In this case, the court recognized that while an individual has a right to express his political beliefs, he does NOT have the right to cause ‘imminent lawless action.’ This standard was created as an ultimate balance between the interests of the individual in expressing himself or herself and the interest of society to maintain order. And the rise of militant chauvinistic Islam championed by lawyers and mullahs amongst the public has made lawless action far more imminent when religious leaders issue death warrants against any progressive who dares to challenge their backward thinking.

Lawyers should reconsider their support for the mullahs who called for the murder of Governor Taseer. The speech of these mullahs certainly instigated the murder of an innocent person.  Time and time again, lawless actions have resulted from mullah-issued fatwas whether through the kidnapping of a progressive school principal, or the murder of an elected official in broad daylight.  No doubt, there is a more directly link  to violence from ultra-conservative rhetoric in Pakistan than in the U.S. Yet the rhetoric in both nations must be reexamined.

In looking at the demented smiles shared by both Qadri and Loughner, we see products of our own societies.,  When we must bury innocent victims like Salman Taseer or nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, we must realize the terrifying power of free speech both as a liberating principle but also as something to be used responsibly by our leaders. However, we as a public must demand more from our leaders, whether they be political parties or lawyers, and we should realize the negative consequences of introducing discordant language in any society.

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