Freedom of Expression vs Protection of Reputation

Whenever there is a discussion about these two fundamental rights – freedom of expression and protection of reputation -, it runs a risk of becoming sectarian. For people who put freedom of expression above everything else, anything that may hamper it will look like authoritarian or totalitarian practice. That’s especially the case when such discussions occur on China- or Taiwan-related blogs. In China, there is no freedom of expression, even though the PRC constitution’s article 35 would seem to suggest otherwise. In Taiwan, both the constitution and daily practice would by and large suggest that there is freedom of expression – even though protection of reputation plays an important role, too.

This is no blog about legal issues, as I have mentioned in previous posts, when things got sort of “legal”. Expect no expertise from yours truly. But it may be worth mentioning that the degree to which freedom of expression prevails in the United States, even when conflicting with other individual rights, appears to be an exception even within the West. Britain for example sees both freedom of expression and protection of reputation as fundamental rights.

In Taiwan, a blogger – reportedly – commented maliciously on a noodle restaurant, and was fined by a Taichung court. The degree to which she was fined seems to be unclear when you follow a number of Taiwanese blogs, and as the mainstream press doesn’t appear to be sufficiently interested in getting to the bottom of the story, and as most blogs tend to comment on ready-made stories  they find within the mainstream press (my own blog is no different), I’m not expecting to know more about “what really happened” in Taichung in the future than I do now. Which is as much as nothing.

Once again, as almost usual, I came across the story through Echo Taiwan‘s blog. The commenting thread which follows his post may come across as quite angry at times.

The same may be true for the thread that follows MKL‘s (My Kafkaesque Life) post on the same topic. He took the opportunity to give several fellow bloggers a severe dressing-down, but not without his own share of errors or unclarities concerning the actual Taichung court case. The saga continues here, on another of MKL’s threads.

Given Taiwan’s – and the ruling KMT’s – history, it doesn’t really surprise me that trust in the country’s judicial institutions is a rather scarce commodity. The Chen Shui-bian case alone (the only one I “studied” at some length) should help to explain as to why that is so.

But how far should freedom of expression go? I’ve asked myself that question very often. I know how far I, personally, want to go as a blogger. I was taught to respect other people and their individual rights. I could have done away with the habit – I’ve done with other things I’ve learned as a child, too -, but I never felt a desire to do so. And still, I’m blogging on WordPress for a reason. Germany’s laws are much more restrictive than America’s, or Britain’s in this field. On a German domain, I might be subject to legal harassment while I’m being left alone on this platform. Jun Jie, a fellow German blogger, was facing a -general, not individual – threat from politics which didn’t materialize after all, but may still do so at a later date.

So in short, I’m at odds with some of my own country’s policies and its politicians’ likely objectives in this field, despite my rather conservative view of what a blogger should, and should not do. It was for this view that I found MKL’s recent posts on the Taichung legal case refreshing.

How far should freedom of expression go? It’s a vague question on a subject which would actually require clear definitions.


» More on the Case, Echo Taiwan, July 3, 2011

28 Comments to “Freedom of Expression vs Protection of Reputation”

  1. If a bloggers code of conduct or ethics exists, and I’m sure is does somewhere, I’m not sure I would sign up.

    Not for any particular reason other than that I like the Wild West dimension of the internet, when every other aspect of our Western lives is highly regulated by legislation or constrained by political correctness. This is not to suggest that I want to push ethical boundaries, but it is nice to know that such a possibility always exists.

    Such traffic over salt and a roach. Think I will go even more downmarket.


  2. I think much of this traffic is owed to feelings like yours, KT, that the internet should be less narrow or more wild-western than real life. It’s not the Taichung court case in particular, but boundaries on freedom of expression which triggered much of the attention.

    Both you and I have chosen to act anonymously on the internet. But the internet is part of daily life. It’s no parallel universe. What I write about people may have an impact on their lives. Endorsement or support would have a small impact on their lives, but something that smears their reputation would have the makings of spoiling it in the “world outside the internet”.

    To me, the really great thing is that I can write posts which will actually be read by interested people elsewhere. I can publish without owning a newspaper. But even if it comes without the traditional costs of publishing, it doesn’t come without some of the responsibilities every publisher needs to bear in mind. The internet is part of the real world.


  3. Thoughtful response JR. My objections to net regulation (which excludes criminal activities) are based on libertarian views. The lives of citizens in Western countries are *already* highly constrained by governmental administrative rules and a political correctness which is shot with thru with hypocracy…or at least where I live. Social engineering of the mind.
    If I want to rant on about Islamo-fascism here, I am liable to end up in court, but at least I can do it on a blog.

    Don’t smoke, drink carefully, are you at risk from obesity? Crikey, the Nanny Sate is there in every corner and crevice of your life. Social engineering of the body.

    It is as Foucault claims. We are both the subject and object of continuous normative and normalising governmental interventions. Our ways of thinking and our bodies are a continuous problem – we are always deficient and in need of improvement – and government’s sole function is to rectify this situation. Social Progress. The end of the whole Enlightenment Project begun a few centuries ago.
    Blogs etc are also mediums for democratising information: one of my reasons for supporting Assange, who I predict will never have to deal with those faked up charges in Sweden. The British high court will kick them right back over the Channel and rightly so.

    This excess of political correctness – lets not hurt anybody’s feelings, all theological doctrines are equal, and the whole sickening politico-cultural industry it has spawned – is one of the reasons why Marine Le Pen’s party is going to gut the two major parties in the next French election. (That was to be my Fact of Life # 7.) Love the wake up call the French establishment got over the arrest of Strauss- Kahn.

    There. I feel better now and will continue to scribble in a responsible manner and feel good about it at the same time ,as I won’t be contributing to the traditional paper pulp industry which is destroying swathes of old forest vegetation.


  4. KT: From what I can see, libertarianism can mean a lot of different things, and even if only for the reason that children should have equal access to quality education, regardless of class background, I’m skeptical about the concept. The Assange case (I’m not referring to the allegations from Sweden, but to Wikileaks itself) are another reason for me to be skeptikal. Contrary to what Wikileaks states, it isn’t the world’s most secretive bureaucracies which are most seriously hampered by Wikileaks – it’s the world’s more transparent bureaucracies which actually are.

    That said, I object to most of internet regulation, too – and I object to the idea that there should be different classes of an internet, in terms of data transmission speed, etc. Practically every idea I’ve heard from politicians – no matter if Australian, Chinese, or German, re “internet regulation” are in fact mere attempts to exercise their own powers, and to reserve options to themselves to quell information they don’t like, rather than addressing the issues.

    Political correctness is marching everywhere (but possibly more so in Australia than in Germany). And yes – there are situations where offending the politically-correct can endanger your career. But my experience – so far – is that you can speak out, so long as you back it up, i. e. as long as you can prove that you thought about it before you spoke. When it is basically resentment that drives you, chances are that you are considered “angry”, and either not taken seriously, or tooseriously (i. e. the fed office for the protection of the constitution will get on you).

    Even advocacy for freedom of expression can turn politically correct. I had an exchange with Mike Fagan, a blogger on Taiwan – of Western background, I believe – the other day. It starts here. Fagan argued that freedom of expression and protection of reputation were different categories of rights, and that among them, only freedom of expression was a fundamental right.

    When I read up a bit and quoted a British “authority” as evidence for my point, he said that he had made “a normative claim; appeals to authority, or to what may be legally instantiated here or there are therefore quite beside the point”.

    To make a normative claim and to “discard” any argument to the contrary is perfectly legitimate – but it is very pc, too. He came across as offended as a Muslim may be when confronted with terms like islamo-fascisim. Freedom of expression can amount to a refusal to deal with anything that conflicts with your own world view.

    In other words: we can turn around and around – but no matter what we may be advocating, our ass will always point backwards.


  5. It isn’t politically correct state that free-speech should be more absolute I’m afraid I agree more with Mike Fagan here. To call his proposition, “politically correct,” is absurd. I wish people would use the term “politically correct” properly these days.


  6. Sorry about the lack of punctuation. Something about the interface (WordPress seems to get me every time) confuses my poor eye-hand coordination. I don’t have the same problem with FB, Twitter, Blogger, or many other interfaces. I’m not bitching, I’m just not used to commenting within the WP interface.


  7. BTW, Just Recently, I agree with you, totally, about the Assange case. I think a lot of libertarians like me would.


  8. 1. I’m not bitching, I’m just not used to commenting within the WP interface.

    Yes, and I hope that you will get used to the WP interface, not least by frequently commenting on this blog, Thoth!

    2. To call his proposition, “politically correct,” is absurd. I wish people would use the term “politically correct” properly these days.

    But what would be a proper definition of political correctness? Apparently based on two books, one by Ruth Perry (1992) and one by Debra L. Schultz (1993), Wikipedia‘s article on the topic suggests that

    “Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and doing so to an excessive extent.”

    Now, suggesting that this is done to an excessive extent may call the author’s objectivity into question, but up to the seven last words, after the last comma, it looks like a reasonable definition to me. (I have some problems with the term itself, because it seems to suggest that a certain approach should automatically correct, while another would not be – exactly when we are in the unchartered waters of normative claims, and “correctness” is even more difficult to achieve than in maths.

    I think it is fair to say that both the concept of freedom of expression overriding protection of reputation in principal (not in every single case – that’s not even the case in the world’s freest environment) is as real as the concept of freedom of expression and protection of reputation both being fundamental rights. That was my point in the discussion at Echo‘s blog. So one might attribute these two different concepts to different societies and their development or priorities, and that, in the end, looks “cultural” (in the “PC” sense) to me. I may be wrong to think so, but I don’t think my view would be absurd. In our discussion, Mike then made it clear that his case had been normative, and that what I said was quite beside the point. Mind you, it had been a debate with several exchanges of opinions, and in the end, I was told that what I said didn’t matter because it wasn’t what Mike himself believed in.

    Don’t get me wrong – Mike’s beliefs are his business, not mine. But just as well, if a Muslim calls me an Islamophobe, if I referred to whatever kind of political currency as islamo-fascism, such a Muslim would have a right to his opinion, too – so long as he doesn’t infringe on my right to express my views.

    Anyway, I’d be interested in how you see political correctness, or how you would define it.

    3. Just a note on your earlier comment, KT: the shortest way for the British high court to kick Swedish charges back would be across the North Sea, not across the channel. There seems to be an entrenched view all over the realms of Her Majesty (including her renegade colonies across the Atlantic) that every evil would hail from France or Germany. It would in fact be a long way from the Channel to Scandinavia.


  9. Hurrah for intelligent debate. It’s been a long time since I’ve been challenged intelligently, as opposed to, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
    Since it’s bedtime, I’ll get back to you on this tomorrow. But thanks so much for responding. I will try to be as engaging (and try to find sources to support my views, like you did!).


  10. “To make a normative claim and to “discard” any argument to the contrary is perfectly legitimate – but it is very pc, too.”

    No it isn’t, it’s a rejection of what I take to be error. My discarding of your run to authority had nothing to do with any politically sanctioned “offense”.

    “Mind you, it had been a debate with several exchanges of opinions, and in the end, I was told that what I said didn’t matter because it wasn’t what Mike himself believed in.”

    That’s neither what I said, nor what I implied. What you said mattered to me because it is not what I “believe in”.

    Remember: I agree with you that defending oneself against defamation is a value which people should be free to act on, my disagreement is actually twofold: (a) that acting against defamation is a “fundamental right”, rather than a mere application of other rights (freedom of speech and association) and (b) that a legal system monopolized by the State is the best way to go about reclaiming values jeopardized by defamation.

    Freedom of expression can amount to a refusal to deal with anything that conflicts with your own world view.

    I wasn’t the one who cut the discussion short, JR.


  11. Mike: no, you weren’t. It was me. Some readers of the thread in question may find that understandable, others may not.

    I will also leave it to every reader if they feel that your comment here has added something new, or if it hasn’t.

    Once you add something new, I will be glad to continue the discussion.


  12. Writing loosely, not pendantically, JR.


  13. Sure. And at those rare moments when I’m getting the impression that things are getting pedantic, I’ll put them on the backburner.
    Such traffic over salt and a roach..
    How prophetic, KT! This is by far the most frequently-read thread on this blog at the moment, and probably no different at Echo‘s or MKL‘s.

    Looking forward to your next comment, Thoth.


  14. When freedom of information and protection of reputation intersect in an individual in Britain, protection of reputation trumps the former every time. Witness the over-use of super-injunctions in recent years. The whole raison d’etre for Private Eye was to question very questionable reputations. The Eye created its own euphemism industry, my favourite being tired and emotional when someone was plainly pissed out of their mind in public. The Eye’s strategy to avoid libel cases was to print on incredibly cheap paper: why sue the bastards, they probably don’t have a cent in the bank and it wont pay for the new swimming pool.

    And as far as freedom of information goes, the Bristish govt is beyond notorious for burying its dirty secrets for long decades under the Official Secrets Act.

    One citation from the British Law Lords does not make a case, JR.


  15. One citation from the British Law Lords does not make a case, JR.

    If I had been told from the beginning that the whole advocacy of free speech was actually normative, and that what “authorities” (or anyone else, really) said was therefore beside the point, the discussion wouldn’t have interested me, KT. In the context of the thread we’re discussing, the citation was important. It was only after that that I learned that everything said was meant to be normative, rather than a description of every society that sees itself as liberal.
    That’s why I suggest that everyone who cares should read the thread in question and draw his or her own conclusions.

    And as far as freedom of information goes, the British govt is beyond notorious for burying its dirty secrets for long decades under the Official Secrets Act.

    I’m sure that much of what is kept secret under the Official Secrets Act would not need to be secret. Here, freedom of information can be demanded by the public – and if the case is convincing, and the public cares enough to insist, political majorities will make sure that the freedom of information – to the desired degree – will become a reality. But if they don’t care enough, it will be that, KT. About a decade ago, I was busy to lobby for a flow of information in a certain field in Germany, besides quite a workload. In my view, disclosure of a certain kind of information was vital. But not too many fellow citizens felt that way. And you know what? I know my limits. I can’t help to make it happen if no substantial number of fellow citizens is dedicated to the same goal. Freedom of speech is one prerequisite to make it happen. To be convincing is another prerequisite. I’m free to speak, but obliged to convince others, if I want to get something done.

    When freedom of information and protection of reputation intersect in an individual in Britain, protection of reputation trumps the former every time.
    Think again, KT: every time?


  16. “…and that what “authorities” (or anyone else, really) said was therefore beside the point…”

    Your paranthetical there is not true.

    “…the discussion wouldn’t have interested me…”

    Perfectly understandable, given that the position I espoused just happened to conflict with your own weltanschauung.


  17. Mike: you interpreted my citation as a “run to authority”. No matter whom I would quote, you would find a way to interpret it in a way that sheds a bad light on the source. It’s not a conflict with my weltanschauung which puts me off. I keep earning my opinion, and I suggest that you earn yours.


  18. Except I didn’t shed any “bad light” on the source, I merely said it was “beside the point”: read my comments again if you have to. A “run to authority” was merely my way of expressing your “argument from authority” – which is what your citation was.

    “I keep earning my opinion, and I suggest that you earn yours.”

    I suggest you reconsider that.

    Remember: you were the one who had to run to authority, and you were the one who had to cut short the discussion.


  19. Feel free to continue commenting here, Mike. I will reply to your comments if I find something explanatory or new in them, and I may otherwise react with occasional links to the beginnings of this exchange, to give readers an opportunity to judge the use of the debate for themselves.


  20. @Mike Perhaps “bandwagon fallacy” would be more appropriate to environmentalist dogma, yes? 😉


  21. “Feel free to continue commenting here…”

    I’ve nothing more to say; I only came here to mop up your presumptions. I’m done.


  22. I’ve nothing more to say

    Mike: time will show.

    Perhaps “bandwagon fallacy” would be more appropriate to environmentalist dogma, yes?

    Thoth: I’m not sure if “bandwagon fallacy” refers to “run to authority”. The point of my citation (see there) wasn’t that Nichol’s statement would validate my point – it was to point out that Taiwan wasn’t the only place where protection of reputation was given a stronger position than in the United States, for example – and that a liberal society doesn’t need to “discard” the notion of protection of reputation as a fundamental right.

    Prior to my citation on Echo‘s thread, Mike never mentioned that his point – about freedom of expression being a fundamental right, while protection of reputation was not – was normative in his view. Therefore, it came across as a debate which referred to an existing legal status – most probably not only to me. MIke stated – quite categorically -, that

    To be protected against slander is not a “fundamental right”.
    However, the freedom to seek means of redressing slander is a right.
    They are two categorically different things.

    The Nichols citation was my answer to that statement.

    If something is normative, it can either be explained, or it can not be explained. Mike has offered no explanation, other than that my comments were “beside the point” (whose poiint?).
    I’m used to going into some detail when taking a position myself. That’s what I think makes a discussion valuable. It makes no sense to start guessing why someone else’s position should be better than mine, if normative remains the only argument.


  23. This is how I view PC (political correctness). It is how most people see it, I suspect, at least judging by the tenor of Simpson’s cartoons, which have alluded to it, from the 90’s until now. As The Simpsons are the most relevantly, widely, and internationally recognized forum of judging popular culture, emanating from America to “Everywhere Else,” I suspect that few, other than the most perverse, will argue with the sensibility which it uses to mock extremism in every form:

    “For many, the topic of political correctness feels oddly dated, like a debate over the best Nirvana album. There is a popular perception that P.C. was a battle fought and won in the 1990s. Campus P.C. was a hot new thing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but by now the media have come to accept it as a more or less harmless, if unfortunate, byproduct of higher education.

    But it is not harmless. With so many examples of censorship and administrative bullying, a generation of students is getting four years of dangerously wrongheaded lessons about both their own rights and the importance of respecting the rights of others. Diligently applying the lessons they are taught, students are increasingly turning on each other, and trying to silence fellow students who offend them. With schools bulldozing free speech in brazen defiance of legal precedent, and with authoritarian restrictions surrounding students from kindergarten through graduate school, how can we expect them to learn anything else?” –
    -Greg Lukianoff, Reason Online, 2010.

    To equate a more absolutist position on freedom of speech, like Mike Fagan’s, with PC, seems to run counter to the idea that advocating freedom of speech is…uh…well, freedom at all. To call something in support of nearly complete freedom politlcally correct is an oxymoron, at least in my perceived, and what seems to be the popularly perceived perception of political correctness.
    The university I went to (the infamous Concordia University, Montreal, Canada) was a prime example of this chilling effect of “students…increasingly turning on each other, and trying to silence fellow students who offend them. I experienced it, and others experienced it, although fortunately, I didn’t get quite the treatment the student depicted above, did (a truly horrifying example of PC).

    Sometimes, Mike Fagan’s exchanges result in a little bit of…I think…incivility. It appears he likes to dig his readers/commenters into as much of an arcane discourse as possible, and then wiggle out (even if both people agree) and proclaim, “I win!.” I would love to hash things out with him (or you, too for that matter) over drinks, but I wish he wouldn’t trip over himself and his semantics so much that it results in such weird, mine-ridden, kamikaze-bravado that gets everybody so uncertain and touchy (himself too, it seems!).

    Anyway, regarding the issue of reputation vs. freedom of speech…of course it’s riddled with paradox. Paradox, yes, but contradictions, no. They come from different demands, and different lines of thought, after all. However, being a judge of what trumps the other, I’d much prefer to give precedent to freedom of reasonable expression (including speech). Otherwise, reputation (which is a severely intangible thing) becomes something far too overvalued. It becomes an excuse for impeding freedom, first in regards to speech…and then…who knows?


  24. “College students are placed in an unenviable position. They are constantly urged to argue, debate, discuss, question, and analyze the most important issues of the day, but they also often know stories of other students who were punished for taking the ‘wrong side’ of an argument.” –

    That’s exactly the kind of PC environment I’ve been raised on all my life, from alternative school though to the M.A. program (not completed) at Concordia University. Now, I’m afraid it might even pervade…of all things…BLOGS!!!


  25. Pardon the reference to “bandwagon fallacy.” I was just giving a friendly nod to Mike Fagan with his reference. “Bandwagon fallacy” if you scroll down in Wikipedia definition of “run to authority” is a related kind of fallacy.


  26. I think that nothing is harmless when it helps people to exercise power without the chance for others to question the arrangement’s legitimacy, Toth. That said, the ten commandments can be just as dangerous as a speech code. And both can, on the other hand, be used as recommendations, rather than as binding rules, in today’s civil societies – even if the names, “commandments” and “correctness”, seem to convey messages to the contrary.

    It can still be quite fatal (to career prospects, etc.) to be labeled a racist, as your link shows. Compared to that, the blogosphere isn’t really a dangerous area – provided that you blog anonymously, anyway, as I do. If people would begin to suspect that I’m an authoritarian personality, for example, that would be quite unpleasant, but that would be that. I’d feel anger, but only need to switch the computer off to disconnect from the source of anger. However, given that this is a blog that advocates liberal values, accusations that this blogger “runs to authority” could do its reputation a lot of damage – if many bloggers joined in and touted the same kind of allegations. And for sure, it would make meaningful discussion much more difficult. You’d keep clearing bullshit away (and may count yourself lucky that everything you said is there in writing), rather than having the time to focus on issues. The “punishment”, if I’m not successful in doing so, would be less credibility for what I write.

    In certain ways, the foreign-Taiwanese blogosphere seems to be a ground where this kind of – sorry, Thoth – political correctness thrives better than elsewhere: you question the priority of freedom of speech in whatever way, and you therefore must be a KMT apologist, or worse. (You are reading a book with KKK heads on the cover, so you must be a racist.) Don’t get me wrong – everyone has a right to claim that someone else were a KMT apologist, even in quarters where such a claim may finish a political career – and even if both you and I would think it’s inaccurate. It’s a power game, and as far as I can see, it isn’t against the rules. But I can’t really see the difference between pc and other ways to intimidate or silence people – especially in a place like Taiwan, where, despite frequent claims to the contrary, even people who think of themselves as some kind of avant-garde tend to be rather conformist. Conformist to pressures within their groups, not without, that is. And it looks to me as if it is highly contagious.


  27. “Paradox, yes, but contradictions, no.”

    Could you explain this in more detail? Actually I didn’t get the whole last paragraph very well. Where do you see the paradox and no contradictions? It’s actually a very interesting statement and I’d like to get some examples on this.

    “freedom of reasonable expression”

    So what is reasonable in Taiwan and what is reasonable for example in America, Germany or Ruanda? I would like to hear your take on this.


  28. Paradox, yes, but contradictions, no.

    My guess in between: defense of ones reputation as an exercise of free speech, or freedom of expression – which won’t cut though, if one has to defend ones reputation against a big tabloid, for example. That’s where the courts are needed. And when it’s a court case, it would look strange to me to classify that as freedom of expression, or speech.


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