Freedom of Expression is Free until…

The 27th of April is the day we celebrate Freedom Day in South Africa.  Every year, on this day, I post a Facebook status reminding the people in my circle how much was sacrificed for our freedom. And in the time leading up to that day I am taking time out to reflect on what freedom means to me as a South African, and also to reflect on what my understanding of this constitutional right entails.

Today I want to talk about our right to the freedom of expression.

It is shocking, in my view, (and I say in my view because of a general observation of how people continue to abuse their freedom of expression) how many people seem to have no understanding of the right to freedom of expression.

At any given time,  social mediums represent freedom as the right to be who you are, the right to  freely express yourself as you see fit, or a right to express even the most offensive views and thoughts because, after all, this is your right as a human being with an individual voice.

Or is it?

I say yes, as long as you understand that with freedom [of expression] comes responsibility and an underlying need for us to respect  it even if it means keeping our mouth shut when it becomes necessary to do so.  A classic example can be clearly demonstrated by spending some time watching social media feeds on any given platform. I understand that we live in a high pressure world and it becomes easy to vent on social media platforms because, this is where our “friends” are. These platforms have become our comfort zones forgetting that essentially it is a public platform seen and shared by anyone and everyone.

Just this month, Vivienne Basson, the then Project Planner for a Multinational Telecoms Company was publicly tarred and feathered for posting an emotionally charged racial slur on her personal Facebook page. As is the case with most controversial content, her post soon went viral. The public quickly caught wind and soon, calls for her employer to dismiss her followed and her employer heeded to the social pressure.

Some may say she had every right to put her feelings out into the world but most would agree that disclaimers stating “in my private capacity” do not  make you exempt from any consequence that follows. If your personal capacity post is derogatory to a generation of people, nay a continent, which is still smarting from the wrongs of the past, be prepared to do the time. Limitations to the right to freedom of expression clearly state that the right does not extend to the incitement of violence or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

Many may feel that it might have been too rash for her company to dismiss her, but we must remember that no man is an island. Our behavior, what we say and do reflects on everything and everyone in our lives and when it’s online, its online forever – not just for when you’re traumatised and emotional. We must remember that we are ambassadors of the companies we work for, we represent our families and our history everywhere and all the time and we need to tread carefully in knowing this for the reason stated above.

And with that, I go back to my previous point of people not understanding the responsibility that comes with this right to freedom of expression. It is a simple and straight forward law which we tend to take for granted and sometimes with regrettable consequences.

So, as I do every April 27th, I suggest we go back and understand that freedom was acquired at a price, and expressing this freedom must never come at the expense of someone or something. This is the lesson we are all learning, albeit slowly, and one I hope my child will one day not have to concern himself with.

Happy Freedom Day!!