The jailing in Moscow of three members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot is a stark reminder of the importance of free speech and the right to dissent within a functioning democracy.
The two-year sentence imposed on the trio demonstrates that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not such a democracy, and also highlights the precious status of individual freedoms.
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, have paid a high price for exercising their right to dissent. After being found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. they now face a long period of incarceration.
Pussy Riot is a feminist collective of 10 women and, since the arrest of the three in March, the others have been in hiding.
To say that the sentence handed down by the court was a disproportionate response to an expression of political belief is an understatement. Some have questioned why the women chose Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as the place to express those beliefs. But the members of Pussy Riot made it clear that the “punk prayer” which they performed there had a two-fold purpose — it was an anti-Putin protest but also a protest against the cozy relationship between the Russian president and Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church — an unholy alliance of oligarch and patriarch.
True to form, the church repeated its criticisms of the band’s “blasphemous” protest after the trial, but cloaked this in a call on the state authorities to show mercy.
Not surprisingly, the trial attracted huge media interest, with TV crews from the BBC and CNN in attendance, along with scores of journalists from the print media.
Among the famous names to express support for Pussy Riot were singers Madonna, Sting, and Bjork. It was during a gig in Moscow that Madonna came out in support of Pussy Riot.
Paul McCartney also added his voice. In a statement addressed to the three women McCartney said: “I hope you can stay strong and believe that I and many others who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom.”
However, international outrage at the harsh treatment of the three women is unlikely to impact much on the Russian political elite.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the hope grew that a real and vibrant democracy would emerge in the “new” Russia, but this latest episode merely confirms that authoritarianism is deeply rooted there, and that, behind a thin veneer of sham democracy, the Russia of Vladimir Putin is a police state. If freedom of expression is to be meaningful, then it must encompass the freedom to give or cause offence. The day any society starts to ban “offensive speech” is the day that state censorship becomes a reality.
The bottom line is that there is no right not to be offended. If there were, imagine the mess we’d be in. If we were all invested with the power to ban something or somebody on the grounds that we find this something or somebody “offensive”, we’d have an unworkable nightmare scenario.
Some reports on the Pussy Riot trial focused on the manner in which repressive societies are characterised by a readiness to ban protest, especially protest of a political nature or having a political objective. If nothing else, the Pussy Riot trial should heighten our appreciation of the right to freedom of expression and its fundamental importance in a democratic society. Suppressing speech that is critical of those in power has long been a tactic of those in power, and no government is entirely free of the lingering temptation to silence its critics.
Eric Barendt, the professor of media law at University College London, in his book, Freedom of Speech, has underlined the four classic arguments for a free speech principle.
These are: (a) the argument concerning the importance of discovering truth; (b) free speech as an aspect of self-fulfilment and personal autonomy; (c) the argument from citizen participation in democracy, and (d) the argument based on suspicion of government.
This latter is based on the long history of attempts by governments and other authorities, such as churches, to suppress speech and the spread of certain ideas. This has resulted in campaigns of official censorship.
The third argument is the most easily understandable. It seeks to establish that the primary purpose of free speech is to protect the right of all citizens to understand political issues, in order to participate effectively in the working of democracy. US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis famously said in the judgment of Whitney v California (1927) that the “freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth”.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in this country, a written constitution incorporating a bill of rights (such as Bunreacht na hÉireann) is not an absolute guarantee that such freedoms are unassailable. At any given time, our Constitution only means what seven unelected members of the Supreme Court say it means. Vesting this kind of power in the hands of an unaccountable few — the right to exclusively interpret and explain the constitution — so exasperated Thomas Jefferson, third president of the US and chief author of its Declaration of Independence, that in 1819 he said the US constitution was “merely a thing of wax” which the judges “may twist and shape into any form they please”.
Another great American judge, Billings Learned Hand, said something that should be framed and hanging on the wall of the Taoiseach’s office in Government Building, and in every school in the country: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”
The travesty that was the Pussy Riot trial graphically demonstrates the pertinence of Judge Hand’s warning.
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