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By Citizen Reporter


Pierre de Vos takes on the Zille ‘free speech’ argument

The constitutional law expert has defended those who expressed their offence at Zille's ideas that were 'so lacking in basic humanity'.

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos, writing on his blog Constitutionally Speaking on Thursday, said he was finally moved to write about Western Cape premier Helen Zille’s defence of colonialism after reading another opinion about it penned by celebrity editor and author Ferial Haffajee.

He pointed out that, in contrast to Haffajee’s criticism of social media “lynch mobs”, there was, from a constitutional perspective, nothing wrong with society at large deploring “unpopular, shockingly bigoted or other incendiary views on social media or elsewhere”.

Before critiquing Haffajee’s view, he panned Zille for her sentiments, describing the attitude reflected in the premier’s tweets as “so lacking in basic humanity or any recognition of the devastating consequences of colonialism, that I was worried I would just restate the bleeding obvious. It is also that the tweets are clearly irrational, literally making no sense to me, as they are premised on the untenable (racist) assumption that colonised countries would not have developed without being colonised and exploited.”

De Vos’ column, though, acknowledged “there are always people who caution that the resultant outcry threatens the freedom of expression of the wrongdoer” and that this happened in the case of Zille”.

“The problem is that this argument is based on a rather crude and uninformed view of the nature of free speech in a democracy.”

He said that Haffajee had been mistaken for saying that “the Constitution regulates (or ‘limits’) certain forms of speech, including hate speech. It does no such thing.

“What it does is to say that certain forms of speech are not protected by the Constitution.”

He also took issue with the idea that harsh criticism of Zille on Twitter or her being fired by the DA amounted to censorship.

“Neither the criticism (nor any move to fire her) would prohibit her from continuing to express her views forcefully on all the platforms that her social status and political position give her access to. (Even if she is fired she will draw a handsome pension, so she is not economically dependent on her job.)”

To drive home his point that there was nothing wrong with people expressing outrage at ideas that are, to them, patently objectionable, he offered up numerous examples of things he himself might say that would get him, as a university professor, into a great deal of trouble and lead to him being fired.

These included if he were to promote conspiracy theories about 9/11, show admiration for Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust of the Jews or “promote the idea that true inner peace only comes by having regular sex with toddlers”.

“I cannot imagine that there will be many people who would bemoan the silencing effect on my freedom of speech caused by Twitter outrage or by me being fired from UCT.”

Zille may be sanctioned by the DA after a meeting to discuss the matter over the weekend.

Read De Vos’ full blog post here.

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Helen Zille Pierre de Vos

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