Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of liberal government. In his famous philosophical work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill laid out the basic principle of how free speech should work:

If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.

“However immoral”, though, is a high bar. What if a person's speech and ideas are terribly odious to the people and society around him? Here Mill is even more emphatic:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Of course, the one ideology that this sort of unrestrained freedom of speech runs smack into is religion. It is rather easy to talk of offending everyone as long the discussion is about the more banal facets of human existence. However, once talk turns to gods, goddesses, prophets and seers, believers tend to get a bit more heated. As a result, even self-proclaimed liberal democracies have allowed the criminalisation of speech that seem to hurt religious sentiments. For example, England had a law that penalised the blaspheming of the Christian religion, which was on its books right till 2008. This was in spite of the fact that its 17th century Bill of Rights protected free speech.

Interestingly, the other thing that is usually shielded from freedom of speech is the state. Even countries which have liberalism as their ruling ideology have, through history, penalised offensive speech against the state. The United States, a country that almost fetishes free speech, has a sedition law on its books that it used to target people branded “anti-national”. This law was used against Communists and Nazi sympathisers in the 1940s but, within a decade, its judiciary had ruled that ideas, no matter how seemingly harmful, can never be a basis for charging someone with sedition. As a result, the Unites States’ sedition law has remained unused since 1961.

Free speech in India

Matters in India are a bit less promising. Free speech is curbed by a fairly stringent blasphemy law, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by the British Raj in 1932. “Anti-national” speech is curbed by India’s sedition law, section 124A, also introduced by the Raj. There is however, a fair bit of opinion ranged against blasphemy laws. The United Nations, for example, recognises that blasphemy laws are incompatible with civil rights. In India too, while free speech has frequently been proscribed as a result of religion, ­there has also been a strong backlash against the blasphemy law within the framework of the modernist tradition that attempts to move beyond the irrationality of religion.

However, the push back against free speech curbs when the state is concerned is markedly less. In the on-going case, where the Delhi Police arrested the President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union on Friday for allegedly anti-national speech, big media and public opinion has mostly supported the action. Both the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh as well as Human Resources Minister Smriti Irani have gone on record to say that any insult to India will not be tolerated. This is also quite similar to how Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula was suspended from his hostel for activities that the Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya considered “anti-national”. Vemula committed suicide soon after and Dattatreya is now accused of abetting his suicide.

Outlawing free speech?

Going against any form of nationalism is a big deal and, just like religion, is a matter of public morality. In fact, in the JNU case, all the leftists groups at the Jawaharlal Nehru University have strongly criticised the anti-Indian slogans shouted on the campus on Tuesday at a meeting to express solidarity with Kashmiris. Slogans criticising the country would obviously hurt many Indians in the same way as, say, Muslims would be hurt over the comment of Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari against Prophet Mohammad in December that sparked protests across the country.

The question here, of course, is whether a liberal state should be in the business of outlawing speech just because people’s feelings are hurt? India’s sedition law itself has been read down and is fairly liberal on paper now, given that only speech that directly incites violence against the government is liable to be prosecuted as seditious. Nevertheless, as is rather obvious from the mass media as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party's government’s reaction to the JNU incident, such a view does not have much popular purchase. And that is troubling for the admittedly small number of people who hold dear free speech and liberalism.