#SeditionDebate: When it comes to freedom of speech, India can learn a thing or two from the US

By N R Mohanty

The recent JNU developments raise larger issues of freedom of expression in a democratic country. Let us take a hypothetical example: If some students in a university campus in the US had raised slogans against the State (as distinct from the government) and demanded the overthrow of the capitalist regime on the ground of some real or imaginary grievances, how would the university and the State have reacted?

I would think that neither the university authorities nor the State mandarins would have taken notice of the matter. “That is a point of view and all points of view are welcome in a university campus” – this would have been their standard reply. Only if the sloganeering by the students would have been accompanied by violence or destruction of property, then the might of the State would have come down heavily on them because such disruptive behaviour would have adversely affected the freedom of the fellow students. So long as their revolutionary fervour was confined to words, verbal or written, they would be protected by the First Amendment –“The Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or press or assembly”.

#SeditionDebate: When it comes to freedom of speech, India can learn a thing or two from the US

JNU students protesting against Afzal Guru's hanging. PTI


But then does such a right to freedom of speech exist in reality or only in Statute books? My personal encounter with a group of radical students in the US told me that these rights were there for the real. It was the year 2002. I was the resident editor of a national daily based in Patna then. I was offered by the US government a six-week travel through 12 cities in the US to see democracy at work (under the ‘distinguished young leader program’ sponsored by the State Department). As part of the program I was asked to specify two groups of people that I would like to meet in the US. Having been a student activist myself (I was a former president of the JNU Students’ Union), I expressed a desire to meet a group of left-wingers if at all they existed in the US campuses (my other request was to arrange a meeting with the inmates of American prisons).

In the very first week, I was taken to the action hub of a student group (I forget the name) in the heart of the capital city, Washington DC. I was surprised to see the pictures of all revolutionary leaders splattered across the walls; a large photo-frame of Ho Chi Minh welcomed me at the entrance itself. As I glanced through the published literature that viciously attacked the American policy – both domestic and international – I wondered if these young men and women symbolised the quintessential anti-Americanism.

Were they not afraid of the State unleashing its power to subdue them, with all their Anti-American campaign, I asked. What they said startled me: “The American State has no issue with us in carrying on such propaganda. We are only afraid of our fellow students who sneer at us. They are in a majority. They cannot physically hurt us because the State and the university are there to protect us. But sometimes we have to face verbal abuse from those students who think we deserve to be put behind the bars for running down the country we live in and benefit from.”

This interaction was indeed instructive. I myself a former student leader of the most politicised and ostensibly the most ‘radical’ campus in India – JNU – felt even as we, JNUites, prided in our radicalism, were doves compared to these hawks in the American campuses. The twenty boys and girls that I interacted with were so passionate about creating a just, anti-militaristic America that I felt they were all budding Noam Chomskys in the making!

One cannot but give credit to the American State that it allows Noam Chomskys to survive and prosper in American campuses despite their ‘anti-national’ credentials. It has been so because the Declaration of Independence defended the very idea of a ‘right to alter or abolish” the government. This right has been upheld by the US Supreme Court. In Yates versus United States case, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens could even go as far as to advocate the forceful overthrow of the United States government. The Supreme Court has seen to it that this revolutionary right is further strengthened in the university campuses.

In Healy versus James case, the Supreme Court rejected the contention of President James of the Central Connecticut State College to deny the official recognition to a local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a student organisation in the campus. President James had announced that he was unwilling to give sanction to an organisation “that openly advocates the destruction of the very ideals and freedoms upon which the academic life is founded…”

The Supreme Court said: “The mere disagreement of the President with the group’s philosophy affords no reason to deny it recognition. As repugnant as these views may have been, especially to one with President James’ responsibility, the mere expression of them would not justify the denial of First Amendment rights. Whether petitioners (members of SDS) did in fact advocate a philosophy of ‘destruction’ thus becomes immaterial. The college, acting here as the instrumentality of the State, may not restrict speech or association simply because it finds the views expressed by any group to be abhorrent.”

Justice Black said: “… the freedom of speech, press, petition and assembly … must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later, they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”

If the First Amendment in the US gives the American student the untramelled right to profess subversive ideas, why can’t the Article 14 of our Constitution give the students of JNU, or students of any campus for that matter, a similar right?

As someone has rightly said – that the State can be criminally assaulted by speech is the hallmark of closed societies. Those who are asking for sedition charges against JNU students – be they university administrators or government big bosses or ill-educated public – are, in fact, seeking to turn India into a closed society.

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2016 14:57:17 IST

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