There is an interesting case of free speech out of South Africa where Chester Missing has been gagged from sending out any more tweets or messages criticizing singer Steve Hofmeyr. The court order is based on the country’s hate speech laws, a continuation of a trend where free speech is being curtailed under antidiscrimination or hate speech laws. What is a bit different in this case is that Chester is a dummy . . . a real dummy . . . like a puppet dummy.
Comedian Conrad Koch is a ventriloquist who uses Chester as his voice. The objectionable tweets came from the puppet’s twitter account. Yes, the dummy has a twitter account.
The problem began when Hofmeyr tweeted his objection of the actions of the ruling African National Congress and said that it was victimizing white South Africans. He then went on Facebook and asked “Apartheid was cruel, unfortunate and unsustainable, but WHAT inspired that maddening segregation?”
Apparently, Chester had enough and went to his own twitter account and accused Hofmeyr of racism and called for a boycott of his products and sponsors. That is when Hofmeyr went to court and obtained a court order barring the ventriloquist and his puppet from making any statements about him in public or on social media.
On its face, both tweets should be protected speech. Moreover, in the United States, constitutional and tort law offers more protection for speech directed as a public figure like Hofmeyr under New York Times v. Sullivan. That case also involved racist charges after the paper ran an ad referring to abuses of civil rights marchers and claimed that Martin Luther King had been arrested seven times. (He had been arrested 4 times). Although not mentioned, Montgomery Public Safety commissioner, L. B. Sullivan (shown in suit in the center), sued for defamation and punitive damages. He won under Alabama law in a highly dubious state preceding that awarded $500,000. Brennan saw civil liability as creating a chilling effect on reporters and their companies, resulting in self-censorship that is just as stifling as direct censorship. Imposing a high standard for proof of defamation, Brennan sought to give the free press “breathing space” to carry out its key function in our system. In his concurrence, Hugo Black stated: “The half-million-dollar verdict does give dramatic proof . . . that state libel laws threaten the very existence of an American press virile enough to publish unpopular views on public affairs and bold enough to criticize the conduct of public officials. The factual background of this case emphasizes the imminence and enormity of that threat.”
The use of hate crime laws presents the same chilling effect on political and social commentary as well as journalism. Hofmeyr has every right to call the ANC racist and Chester has every right to call him racist. However, like many Western countries, aggrieved individuals can now go to the courts to seek to muzzle their critics.
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targets with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).
The action in South Africa is based on a theory of hate speech. Such arguments have shown the fluid and ever expanding character of hate speech interpretations. The use of the law in a matter of obvious political speech captures the danger that free speech is facing around the world. If the South African courts allow this order to stand, there is more than one dummy in the case.
9 thoughts on “Free Speech for Dummies: South African Court Silences Puppet’s Tweets As Possible Hate Speech”
I agree with Karen S.
We’re very lucky to live in a country with the most robust free speech protections in the world.
I adamantly oppose any efforts to undermine that right, with suggestions such as an international anti-blasphemy standard.
Hate laws lead to suppression of free speech. Who, after all gets to define “hate”? It can be expanded to anything. They should be unconstitutional, but thanks to Grandma O’Conner and Justice Kennedy, we’re stuck with them.
And is not South Africa run by Africans now and not Dutch people? So why does not the African American AL Sharptongue guy go to South Africa and explore his roots and itchBay over there? He needs to learn a word from up by Kenya. Uhuru. Freedom. Truth. The American Way.
I have been observing the scene in Ferguson (now by way of television from New Orleans where the bars are open later) and note that you humans here on Earth had a guy hold his hands up and say: “Hands Up Dont Shoot” and a cop shoots him. I fail t see how this is less evil than these people over in the other side of the world. Also I note that there are killings daily in New York City and this AL Sharptongue guy lives there but never objects– even when white cops shoot black people. Humans on Planet Earth have this peculiar aspect about thinking that their own itShay does not stink.
All that said, the comedian has every right to lampoon the speaker of truth. At least under US law. If our prez signs an executive order making blasphemy laws, that may change here as well.
We have several families in my small town who fled the oppression in South Africa after apartheid was ended. I coached on of the girls in softball and had conversations w/ the dad. The violence and backlash against just regular white folk is one of the dirty little secrets in this hypocritical and PC world. Hell, a backlash was bound to occur. But, talk about it, write about it, joke about it. You see how laws allegedly controlling “hate speech” are really about controlling the truth. There are families who fled South Africa after apartheid all over this country. Seek one out and talk w/ them.
While I agree with you on your points regarding free speech, as with all rights there should be responsible use.
South Africa does tend to have a “well developed” culture of “ripping off”. While that is certainly not true for 99% of South Africans, it is a few in that remaining 1% (equally across all races) that have expertise in exploitation.
We also don’t allow competitive advertising. While this may have merits and works elsewhere, South African advertising companies have managed to get by and so do the consumers.
There are some who argue that is one’s democratic right to hate someone.
There should be limitations to what you are allowed when it infringes on someone else’s well being. The UFS Reitz Hostel video would be an example.
Or warnography. In the 80’s and 90’s one could not photograph or display dead soldiers. Faces of Death and other such sides were considered overstepping boundaries.
Then Saddam got hanged and displayed as a trophy. That’s the other side to “free speech”
Then there is the “free press”, but one could gain complete control and editing of news stories.
There is the issue of the slippery slope. I think there should be middle ground that works in favour of both parties.
Another issue, mostly unrelated is the Oscar Pistorius trial: another South African legal WTF moment. It is possible that he will spend 10 months in jail. (5 years max).
The problem is that the prosecution is not happy, and many people do not feel justice was not done. Personally, I don’t care less, the life of Oscar has no relevance to myself. So they want to try the case again: and that should be alarm bells. To set a precedent that once you have been sentenced and in jail, you could be tried for the same crime again. This case, the motive being popular opinion.
While I do appreciate the fact that the dummy has been silenced this has been a problem for many a fiction film. Glad to see it come to life.
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