There Are Moral And Legal Limits To Free Speech: Online Bigotry Needs Policing


Anonymous bigots should be exposed for what they are, hideous trolls. They shouldn’t be given the oxygen of publicity, says Eusebius McKaiser.

There’s a massive difference between unjustified censorship and banning hate speech. Hate speech is illegal and immoral. If you ban it, or delete it after it had been expressed, that doesn’t mean you don’t get the meaning of freedom of expression. It means you know there are moral limits to free speech, even in a liberal constitutional democracy. It’s time South African editors, including my bosses here at Independent Newspapers, got this insight, and policed hate speech more effectively online.

An absolutely brilliant comment piece published in the Cape Argus on Friday with the headline “Black in Cape Town? Brace yourself”, by an evidently gigantically talented 16-year-old South African, Kine Dineo Mokwena-Kessi, makes for a good case in point.

The details of her argument and observations in the piece do not really matter for the points I want to establish. Essentially, she narrates her lived experiences as a young black South African who had moved to Cape Town. Not my experiences. Not your experiences. Hers. It is Kine’s phenomenological account of Kine’s Cape Town. They are her truths.

You would have thought, what with us bragging about a progressive constitution in place, and a rainbow nation that’s alive (if not fit and healthy), that it’s fine for someone to own, and write, about their experiences of a city. Not so. She was subjected to horrendous abuse online in the comment section below her piece. (It is worth visiting the over 1 200 online comments for yourself.)

Examples – verbatim – include: “Must suck to have folks know you are patently some sorry subhuman”, “Just bloody well get OVER your retarded, backward victim mentality. If you don’t like Cape Town, bugger off to Kinshasa”, “We have enough Retards in CT. now F.OFF”, “what the f**k is your point… Am i thick or can you just damn spell out what you are saying”, “id love to wake up in the morning and not have to see a black face all day”, “Use some relaxer, your nappy hair is out of control”, “this is a shIt article”, “Little girl, go study your maths as you suck at creative writing”. “If you don’t like Cape Town pissoff somewhere else where you can wallow in your blackness!! Try Limpopo!!”, and more.

(Dear reader: I will let you know which of these verbatim quotes, if any, were edited out for any of the print editions of this column. There’s a point to that related to the core argument I am making.)

So here’s my beef. Why on earth do editors of websites feel obligated to have a lower bar for what counts as acceptable debate than they do for what they print in the hard copies sold on the streets or delivered at your door? The double standard has no justification.

Sure, you have space issues in the hard copy of the newspaper. But let’s be honest. Most, if not all, of the quotes I have picked here would never be seen on the letters pages of our newspapers. Because they either violate the dignity of the writer or, in the instances where the comments are not hate speech, they are so appallingly off the mark from a decent debate viewpoint that a letters page editor would not choose them because they do not contribute to a healthy debate about the issues raised by the writer. And we never moaned about this discretionary power of editors, so why abandon discretion for online debates?

If you protect the writer from abuse and hate speech on the pages of the hard copy of your newspaper, why would you not do so online? The reason, I think, is really simply yet spectacularly unexamined: the internet makes us feel compelled to have thicker skins than we have offline.

But hit the pause button right there. Why should I tolerate hate speech on the internet but not in my house, at work or on the debate pages of hard-copy editions of magazines, newspapers, etc? We literally let the website corner – “online comment section” – constitute a self-evident cogent argument for less policing of hate speech. Why? Because hate speech is hate speech is hate speech.

Employ someone who understands the legal and ethical boundaries of free speech and let them clip the haters’ wings – our constitution is clear that hate speech isn’t allowed, and legislation and case law developed this fact too – and our various media watchdog bodies have ethical codes of conduct. Someone in charge of editing online comments needs to know that their, and their company’s, reputation for facilitating debate will not be damaged if you follow the law and delete hate speech. Some places do have online editors, but you’d never tell by how poor the filtering is!

If you cannot provide this service due to resource constraints, then simply close the comment section. I really don’t think our public debate will suffer if News24’s comment sections were closed down permanently, and if IOL’s comment sections are headed that way, then the same applies to the company I write for.

A final thought: Is my view anti-free speech? Absolutely not! A comment that says this 16-year-old writer is naive, generalising without proper study of a representative sample, a spoilt brat from Joburg used to being treated special, etc, are all fine. Even personal insults are permitted. I get a batch of them daily. Tough luck for me.

But not one democracy in the world thinks free speech has no limits. Not one. And so our editors need not fear suffering reputational damage for policing online comment sections by applying the exact same standards they apply to letters that arrive in the editor’s inbox.

Will you simply drive hatred “underground” if you ban hate speech? Maybe. But then why do we have laws that outlaw hate speech? Anonymous online bullies who trample on people’s dignity don’t deserve to have their illegal speech acts legitimated. If they manifest it elsewhere, for example racial attacks at work – then let’s go after them there with the full might of the law and social disapproval. But there’s no need to oxygenate illegal speech online if you have the technical capacity to stop it. And it’s no comfort to the victims that online comments might not be representative of society.

The real reputation a website editor must worry about is being a conduit for an attack on the dignity of a writer, especially a 16-year-old who just wrote one of the finest pieces of writing I have read locally in many, many months. Let’s fight back against the bigots, while allowing, still, for us to disagree deeply with each other.

Now brace yourself for these trolls role-modelling this column’s key premise in the comment section beneath the online edition of this column. Will the editor guard against illegal speech? Let’s see.

* Eusebius McKaiser hosts ‘Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser’ on Power 98.7 weekdays 9am till noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.


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