The Limits of Expression

What are the limits of free expression? When are crazies required to shut up? These questions come to mind following the controversy around “The Innocence of Muslims”, the video on the Prophet Mohammed.

The film has incited riots and deaths worldwide. A fatwa or Muslim religious edict has been issued for the execution of its producers, protagonists and promoters.

Our Government has condemned the video and the University of the Philippines banned its showing on campus. An enraged UP law professor, Harry Roque, defied the ban claiming freedom of expression. He became visibly less indignant when intimated by “Binladin” Sharief, the reported head of the Men of Islam, Harry now possibly qualifies to be in the fatwa hit list.

Salman Rushdie was the subject of a fatwa for his book “The Satanic Verses” in 1988. He went into hiding until the edict was lifted ten years later. Roque might consider doing likewise.

Democratic constitutions protect the right of free speech however hateful or inane. The exceptions are when the statements are a clear and present danger to the community. Thus, one cannot shout “Fire” in a crowded theater nor speak even in jest about carrying a bomb into a commercial airplane. The “Innocence of Muslims” surely falls into this category. A Muslim group has filed a petition with the Philippine Supreme Court to ban it from YouTube. Somebody better tell them if the Court has no power over dollar accounts, it has even less over the cyberworld.

In an unrelated matter, freedom of expression took a different twist. Manny Pangilinan recently announced with some fanfare he was withdrawing financial support for Ateneo because of its stand on mining and, parenthetically, the RH Bill. He said its position on the former reflects “ignorance” and ”runs contrary to what our laws and Constitution say and to what I believe… I would look like a fool for helping an institution which opposes my convictions dramatically and unequivocally”.  Manny was reacting to a Jesuit Paper entitled “The Golden Mean In Mining: Talking Points” which, despite its heading, left little to talk about. The perceived slight comes at a bad time for Manny: Philex, the mining company he chairs, is facing an environmental crisis, he has been dragged into the Scarborough mess, Meralco customers are irate and the Philippines lost its bid to host the basketball world games. Manny has threatened to pack his bags and return to Hong Kong.

Manny has apparently been disenchanted with the Society of Jesus dating as far back as his plagiarism issue: He welcomed his “complete and total disengagement with the Ateneo … with some relief”. He paints the congregation and the school with the same brush which might offend some Blue Eagles but that is another discussion.

Over the years Manny has quietly and generously given to good causes. However some now question his altruism like: Should gift-giving interfere with academic freedom? When does philanthropy become an advocacy, an advocacy become a lobby, and a lobby become propaganda? Philanthropy is defined as large scale benevolence; advocacy as support for a cause; lobbying as solicitation from influential people through financial means; and propaganda as the organized dissemination of a doctrine.

In so publicly announcing his philanthropic fatwa, these people say, Manny was making a political statement, not a grievance.

I see it differently: Manny is arguably justified in cutting off his alma mater but for the wrong reason. The problem is not that Ateneo betrayed his faith but that it betrayed its purpose.

As a body of learning, Ateneo’s principal role should be to foster knowledge and human values in the young, not to promote a particular social philosophy or economic doctrine. On the contrary, it should encourage unfettered expression for it is in the Socratic give and take of ideas that the mind is trained in reason and logic.

The intellectual failing of Ateneo is therefore not that it is for or against reproductive health or mining but that it is for any position at all. The purpose of an educational institution is not to arrive at conclusions. That is for its constituents, the students, to do after informed deliberation. It is dangerous when an entity as powerful and skillful as Ateneo is in forming young minds; gets into the business of advocacy. When that happens the institution becomes not a bed of learning but a political force with an agenda. Education lurches to propaganda and propaganda to exclusion and totalitarianism. It is for this reason the Honk Kong community recently fought, successfully, against the imposition of a particular school curriculum by the authorities.

It is sad to see partners part especially on bad terms but that happens when, in this instance, one side does not disclose the limits of his charity and the other exceeds the bounds of academic expression.

The good news, however, is Manny now has even more money to give away. Everybody, the line starts on the left.

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About Leo Alejandrino

The blog is principally a commentary on Philippine politics and economics.
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6 Responses to The Limits of Expression

  1. Eduardo Cu Unjieng says:

    You raise some interesting points here, Leo. But i must question your somewhat dogmatic statement, “The purpose of an educational institution is not to arrive at conclusions. That is for its constituents, the students, to do after informed deliberation.” What immediately came to mind when i read this was the position taken by our Education Secretary when he declared that we should leave it up to the students to pass judgment on the martial law years. That the books they read should not have any judemental statements about whether martial law was right or wrong. We already have an entire region, thanks to the Marcoses, where children are taught a totally different version of history about the Marcos years.

    I am still reacting to the discovery – much later in life – that the Americans weren’t all that benevolent as our history teachers drummed into our heads. I actually grew up believing that it would only be a matter of time before we became a state. Then i read, “The Imperial Cruise.”

    Nah, the escape clause, “…to do after informed deliberation” just leaves too many doors open to those who would distort what really happened. Our people need to know the truth. And that goal is something we cannot afford to compromise.

    Martial law is to Filipinos what the holocaust was to the Jews. The Marcoses and the Iranians are on the same page in trying to re-write history.

  2. thesocietyofhonor says:

    Very interesting read with a succinct conclusion. “It is sad to see partners part especially on bad terms but that happens when, in this instance, one side does not disclose the limits of his charity and the other exceeds the bounds of academic expression.” Thanks.

  3. Editor says:

    Well put and your best so far. Totally agree.

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