This research essay on ways to combat/ regulate hate speech and maintain the right to Free speech appeared in Volume 9 of the Journal of Indian Law and Society, that was released on May 20, 2020 by the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.
The right to free expression is the heart of a democracy. It is necessary to ensure minimal government regulation in the communication of ideas, especially when it comes to diverse opinions and dissent. Freedom of expression entails the individual’s right to participate in decisions that affect him/her and the public’s right to unrestricted access to information that enables an informed decision to assist democratic decision-making and self-expression. Thus far, in instances of legal challenges to free speech and the need for civil discourse, the Supreme Court of India has been careful to avoid judicial overreach by clearly dictating its intention to function under the purview of existing laws, and a legal interpretation of the ambit of ‘reasonable restrictions’ as outlined in the Constitution of India. There is reluctance in creating exceptions since greater value has been accorded to expression.
The explosion of social media, the absence of filters in social communication, the credibility crisis of mainstream media and the spread of fake news and propaganda have all combined to create an environment in which the stifling of dissent is done not necessarily by the state, but by the public itself via hate speech, personal abuse and threats of violence. Hate speech relies on stereotypes which can carry on from historic ideas or symbolism usually directed towards minority groups (races, caste, gender, etc.). The prevalence of hate/extreme speech and the inadequate response to it by both the public and the state pose a challenge of definitions, of the need to for clarity on what reasonable restrictions mean and on ensuring that the response to it be principled and not whimsical in order to suppress what we don’t like to hear. This paper aims to discuss the need for online self-regulatory mechanisms rather than Government involvement as well as adequate definitions without placing open-ended limitations on Speech. Online platforms must ensure sensitization and spread awareness by running counter narratives against hate. The proliferation of misinformation is another issue that must be tackled extensively.