Saturday, May 10, 2014

New Bloggers Law in Russia and the Freedom of Speech

At the New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar headlines that Russia Quietly Tightens Reins on Web With 'Bloggers Law'. What are we to make of this?

One of the main societal and legal features of the modern civilized world is the general concept of "freedom of speech".

The right to free speech provided by law is not absolute, but is limited.

Although there is surely a lot of truth to the old saying that "the pen is mightier than the sword", the fact is that if you do not mind your tongue wisely, you can still get into a lot of trouble anywhere.

Indeed, no nation on Earth tolerates entirely free speech as such, since there are strong social, moral and legal limitations everywhere, both written and unwritten, including limitations of "political correctness" in any environment.

As a matter of law, even in the United States, the historical champion of civil rights, the right to "freedom of speech" that is anchored in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be limited in cases where speech:
  • creates a dangerous situation
    - the so-called "clear and present danger" limitation
  • incites immediate violence
    - the so-called "fighting words" limitation
  • damages or defames the reputation of persons or organizations
    - the so-called "libel and slander" limitation
  • violates community standards on sexual matters
    - the so-called "obscenity" limitation
  • conflicts with legitimate social or governmental interests in terms of time, place and manner of expression (e.g. distributing leaflets while impeding the flow of traffic, or creating excessive noise)
    - the so-called "compelling interests" limitation
Freedom of speech can properly only be understood as being ONE primary civil right which in practice is balanced against OTHER primary rights of individuals, organizations and states.

The classic example is the prohibition against yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre in which there is no fire, thus risking a stampede and grievous harm to persons. This means that the safety and well-being of people in the theatre in that situation ranks higher than the freedom to make dangerous speech there.

The "Bloggers Law" in Russia, which goes into effect August 1, thus must be interpreted in the context of similar, if differently applied laws of limitation in other countries, such as the USA or the European Union.

The Russian "Bloggers Law" provides, as written by MacFarquhar at the NY Times:
"[T]hat any site with more than 3,000 visitors daily will be considered a media outlet akin to a newspaper and be responsible for the accuracy of the information published.

Besides registering, bloggers can no longer remain anonymous online, and organizations that provide platforms for their work such as search engines, social networks and other forums must maintain computer records on Russian soil of everything posted over the previous six months."
On its face, the difference here to Western systems of free speech control is not so much one of substantial legal content but rather of future application of both the letter and spirit of the law's provisions according to the rule of law.

That all such limiting legal provisions have a certain "chilling" effect on free speech is clear. They "could" be used to suppress free speech. On the other hand, no nation is without its limitations on freedom of speech. Do the Russian limitations go too far? Time will tell.

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