Thursday, May 16, 2013

Taking away the Latvian public' s right to choose what they see in public

I’m no fan of swastikas and hammers and sickles. I would avoid a public event where lots of either were present. Then again, I might want to get an answer to my WTFs on seeing such a spectacle and go take a closer look and maybe listen to what these people were saying (if they were amenable to having spectators and being listened to).
The point is – regardless of whether it is five guys waving a swastika flag, or a speaker haranguing passersby under a Communist hammer and sickle poster – or a non-political street juggler – the choice of whether to look at or listen to what is being expressed is MINE! It seems quite reasonable that as an adult, I have the right to choose what I see or hear in a public place without interference by the government, especially if those bringing the message are not forcing me to listen to it. As far as the message being offensive to me, to others, anyone can choose not to listen or to go away.
Today, the Latvian parliament or Saeima took another step toward limiting what I may see, listen to, or read on display at a public event – not just a political demonstration, but any public gathering. A law banning the display of Nazi and Soviet flags and symbols was passed in the so-called second reading, which still leaves some time for final editing and modifications, but the decision in principle was made. The Latvian state is going to tell me and all other adults in this country what they may or may not see, hear or read. I think they called that censorship back in the day.
Moreover, the choice as to the whether the banned symbols are being displayed with the intent, as the draft law says, to glorify the crimes of the Nazi or Soviet regimes, to advocate war, the violent overthrow of the government, or disobedience and violations of the law – will basically be left to the police on the street. In other words, the guy or girl who can clearly see the criminal intent in someone stealing another person’ s wallet or slapping, unprovoked, someone else upside the head – will have to decide on the matter of criminal intent in some pretty complex situations and contexts. Can a police officer know whether a man reading from a critical annotated edition of Lenin’ s essays (with a Soviet flag on the cover) at a public meeting (to promote his book) is “glorifying the Soviet regime”  or calling for the overthrow of the government – or merely presenting a part of his work?  One wrong decision and the police will have put a strong chilling effect on – book tours? While this is a somewhat contrived example, the point is that it is harder to undo a mistaken decision to arrest and disperse a public gathering because someone has the “wrong” symbols than to not do it at all. Those in power in Latvia have such chronically low trust from the public that any promises of  “it won’t happen again” will never be believed, and those most easily intimidated will hesitate to express radical views.
This law is a mistake and will need to needless repression and chilling of public debate. Hateful symbols and speech must be met with arguments, not the threat of prison, especially when the choice of who to arrest may be arbitrary or based upon insufficient understanding of a situation. On the whole, more laws against hateful symbols serve only to reduce the right of Latvia’ s inhabitants (free access to viewpoints is not only the privilege of citizens, but a right for all) to see, hear, or read whatever they please. Such laws are also an infringement of the freedom of expression, which I believe should be as close to absolute as is possible