The Straits Times says

Guarding against incendiary words

Dealing with those who create social unrest is an imperative necessity in multicultural societies. Whenever such threats emerge, decisive steps must be taken, like Indonesia's arrest last week of the leader of a hardline Muslim group bent on organising protests against the Christian governor of Jakarta. Swift action against hate speech has been seen in Singapore too - for example, the jailing of a recalcitrant teen blogger who made offensive comments about Christianity and Islam. This week, an Islamic religious leader who spoke of victory over Jews and Christians was fined and will be repatriated to his home country.

Firm measures are warranted as racial and religious violence was witnessed here in the past and still arises in the region. Thus, it would be reckless to allow hatemongers to ping flaming arrows into tinderbox social spaces. That's why the publication of Prophet Muhammad caricatures would not be condoned here, and anyone maliciously burning any religious text would face prosecution. Elsewhere, particularly in the West, such acts would not prompt universal condemnation, especially when notions of freedom of expression are deemed inviolate. Most nations, however, acknowledge that free speech is not absolute. Even though the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right of expression, "it has never been interpreted to guarantee all forms of speech without any restraint whatsoever", as American legal commentators have noted. Restrictions can be imposed and the US Supreme Court has laid down certain criteria to evaluate what is reasonable within the American context.

Similarly, other nations too retain the freedom to choose how to safeguard themselves against inflammatory speech, bearing in mind their own circumstances and needs. The task assumes greater importance as messages of hate travel at cyberspeed and extremists become more assertive.

Unfortunately, flagrantly racist websites can gain support via the use of programmatic online ads. But some organisations, like JPMorgan Chase which does not want its brand to be associated with toxic content, are resisting this practice. There is also a Twitter movement to divert advertising dollars away from egregious media outfits like Breitbart News. Society as a whole must appreciate that social divisions are multiplying in many places, and one cannot afford to turn a blind eye to highly divisive language. Purists see the principle of free speech in black and white terms but realists accept that the practice is grey. To give free rein to confrontational attention seekers, misguided clerics and extremists could put society at risk, as the fire they play with can get out of hand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Guarding against incendiary words'. Print Edition | Subscribe