Understanding is the need of the hour

In the last couple of months, a lot has been discussed on the issue of freedom of expression. The section 66A of Information Technology Act 2000 (which was brought in with an amendment in 2008) is being examined in the Supreme Court for its validity and scope of misuse. (Sec 66A: Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.)

‘Freedom of expression’ is not an absolute right across the world. Almost all countries place restrictions on this freedom. Most restrictions relate to ‘abusive’ or ‘offensive’ or ‘obscene, or ‘malicious’ language, depictions, art and other forms of expression.

However, the problem is of the definition and perception of offensive, obscene, abusive, insulting, etc. What is ‘offensive’ to one is completely normal to the other. The world, with its myriad people and perceptions does not have one uniform standard of ‘offensive’ language.

If we start having a ‘common criminal law’ approach for every ‘offensive’ expression, we are going to find it very difficult to govern our society. To define ‘offensive and abusive’ in one common criminal law approach is extremely risky, difficult, given to abuse, as well as inappropriate.

Therefore the approach to handling disputes of ‘abusive and offensive’ language has to be through ‘Alternate Dispute Resolution’ (ADR) methods, such as mediation and conciliation.

If a group or an individual finds it offensive to see people kissing in public and files a complaint, it would be much better to refer the matter to the ADR Centre of Conciliation and Mediation. Such a centre would set up a panel of mediators who will help build a dialogue between the parties, help them see each other’s point of view, and help bring them together to a consensus with appropriate apologies or withdrawals of threat.

It is therefore necessary that the raging issue of ‘Freedom of Expression’ be taken out from the realm of ‘common law approach’ and put into the realm of ADR. The world would be a much better place if each of us would learn to be aware of the other and also be able to have our opinion understood by the other.

The writer is a legal counsel

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