In the current crisis another shark has been on people’s minds. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak quite a few commentators compared Trump to the fictional mayor in Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s mayor refuses at first to accept that a shark is responsible for the fatal attacks – he claims the first was a boating accident. When the evidence becomes hard to refute he still declines to shut the resort. Only when another swimmer gets chewed up on 4 July does he finally accept that he needs to call in the professionals. It’s all rather Trumpian. But only one politician has actually cited the actions of the mayor from Jaws as a model of crisis management, and it isn’t Trump. Boris Johnson used to tease audiences by suggesting that ‘the real hero of Jaws was the mayor, a wonderful politician.
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