Erykah Badu and the free speech paradox
Writer: Lee Lian Kong
Published: Fri, 23 Mar 2012
Free speech has its limits. That’s the paradox of the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Whereas in the Malaysian Constitution, Article 10 states:
“Subject to Clauses (2), (3) and (4) –
(a) every citizen has the right to freedom ofspeech and expression;
(b) all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms;
(c) all citizens have the right to form associations.”
Needless to say, the paradox is more obvious in our version. From the first two words itself, which are “Subject to …”, we get this tiny sense of discomfort (just a tiny sense) that it’s self-contradictory.
What is speech? And from that definition, what does its freedom entail? These questions are important because it forms the basis on how we understand free speech. Especially in the United States, free speech and its legal embodiment in the First Amendment is no mere legal technicality that can be easily glossed over. Its significance is everywhere. The difference is whether it is explicit or implicit. Some are subtle, they attract less attention, are ignored or just simply not within our proximity. We don’t realise we are exercising freedom of speech. Examples include the everyday newspapers we read or our daily conversations.
Its significance becomes explicit for two possible reasons. Firstly, it has a history of being within the gray area i.e. society is torn or can’t make up its mind. A good illustration of this is swearing. One section of society swears against it and the other swears to no end.
The second way freedom of speech is made explicit, is when there is a sudden, concerted press coverage of it. It is the second category that the Erykah Badu issue has fallen under. If her tattoos containing Arabic words were not brought to the attention of the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry, it would have remained implicit. (And we would have got some sublime live music in Kuala Lumpur for once)
A tattoo may not be verbal and falls outside the conventional understanding of “speech”. However, it has long been accepted that non-speech is speech too. Writings, articles, actions may not vibrate the particles in the air to produce sounds. But as long as they contain enough elements of communication and the reasonable man can understand the underlying message and there is intention to do so, such conduct is protected under freedom of speech as well.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the most comprehensive definition : “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In this case, her medium was her skin, specifically on her shoulders. The ministry’s reasons for banning her show was to protect the religious sensitivities of the nation. Here we see this freedom limited by religion and this is socially acceptable. Freedom of speech can be limited by justifications based on religion. Never mind the paradox inherent in that statement itself. That’s the way Malaysia operates, let’s just go along that line of thought. OK let’s not get any tempers flaring and ban the concert. The question then is, why ban the concert? Why not just ask Erykah to cover her shoulders? There’s precedence to support that suggestion. Katy Perry and Gwen Stefani were allowed to perform as long as they dressed modestly (How a nude coloured skin tight suit is considered modest is beyond me).
The tattoos can also be removed because they were temporary body art.
Let’s step back a little further and ask why they considered her tattoo to be offensive? It is not good enough to say the general person will be offended. The intention behind the tattoo is equally as substantial. Was it ascertained that she had every malice to offend both the religion and culture of Islam and Malaysia? If she did, that would surely take the prize of the best marketing strategy ever : Offend your customers so they will buy your music.
There were alternatives we could have easily have a discourse towards. From the removal, covering and a chance to plead her case. There were ways where freedom of speech and cultural and religious sensitivities could have met in the middle. Or, at least tried to.
But the ministry denied audience to her and alas, we will never know. What we do know is freedom of speech comes with a side of limits. And if we follow the trajectory set by this incident, with freedom slowly being chiseled away, limits will be all we have left.
Lee Lian Kong wishes she could limit her coffee intake. She welcomes all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.