Over the last 150 days we have learned much about the power of the habitual in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa. We have heard it in the grumbling, cavilling, quarrelling and grousing about the logic (or lack of) of government decrees. We have also seen it in the defiance of logic among the many bourgeois folks who mistook their entitlement for rights, whether to go running, do yoga on the beach, surf, get takeaway coffees, or to purchase items subjected to restricted trade… We saw it in the contradictory messages relayed by official government channels, in the conflict between some experts advising government, between government officials and such experts, and in the ways in which opposition parties contradicted themselves as they opposed government proclamations.
The robust protection of freedom of expression is not well-served by the assumption that the regulation of free expression may never take into account the content of the expression being regulated. The assumption fails to acknowledge that some forms of expression are far more valuable and in need of protection in a democracy than others. It also fails to acknowledge that some forms of expression threaten democracy and the dignity of those who live in it. The idea of a content neutral approach to the protection of freedom of expression should, therefore, be rejected as it is not useful for the effective protection of freedom of expression in a democracy that respects human dignity and diversity. To the extent that free expression is believed to operate in a free marketplace of ideas, it furthermore fails to identify (and may even mask) some of the most pressing threats posed to a thriving free expression culture. Instead, turning to the South African Bill of Rights – with its general limitation clause – will provide for a far more nuanced and effective approach to the possible limitation of free expression, provided that certain important safeguards are put in place. The article therefore argues that we should reject the metaphor of the free marketplace of ideas and should, instead, turn to the idea that freedom of expression’s protection depends to some extent at least on whether it advances, protects or reflects the values that form part of the ‘objective normative value system’ embodied in the South African Constitution. The article concludes by arguing that the problems raised by the metaphor of free marketplace of ideas can at least partly be addressed by reimagining freedom of expression as a right that places not only negative obligations on the state to refrain from interfering with the right of individuals to receive and impart information and ideas, but also as a right that places positive obligations on the state to take steps progressively to extend the ability of individuals to receive and impart ideas and to access a more diverse array of information and ideas.BACK TO TOP