The Jefferson Cumberbatch Column – Freedom of Expression
It is, once again, that time of the year when we UWI examiners are called upon to mark examination scripts. As a result of the introduction of the semester system, this has now become a biannual exercise for us in May/June and December/January. None of which, of course, is of the slightest interest to any of my readers, but it serves to illustrate starkly some of the eldritch ways in which this columnist derives fodder for his weekly offering.
Perusing some scripts last week, and encountering for the umpteenth time in them the seemingly perennial elision of the “ed” and “d” from the past tense form of some verbs, the alarmingly familiar unfamiliarity with the proper usage of “their”, “there”, “they’re” and “they”, who’s for whose, and the jarring insistence of putting a “d” in “privilege”, I began to wonder whether I am not merely a silly old nerd whose demand for the proper spelling of words and the accepted use of English marks me out as an ageing dinosaur.
But then I thought further on the issue, and I recalled that the elision of the past tense endings had indeed now become accepted usage in some modern English expressions so that it would now be almost laughable to ask for iced cream, waxed paper, or skimmed milk. Hence it may be that one day, newspapers might very well be “publish”, matters will be “discuss” and decisions “consider”. I note in passing, with some alarm, that the spellcheck on my desktop is not even signaling that these are incorrect, but I digress. Sic transit gloria, I assume.
One of the areas of law of which I happen to be a keen student is that of freedom of expression and the nature of its regulation. In law this is usually effected through the jurisprudence governing defamation, blasphemy, and by the criminal law that governs libel, the use of threats, indecent language and the theoretically troublesome offence of using insulting language to a police officer, among others.
It may be then that while much of the concentration in the phenomenon freedom of expression is on what one cannot or should not say, much less attention is paid on how we express either in words or writing what we want to communicate to others. So when some weeks ago James Comey, the recently dismissed Director of the FBI complained “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” he was not merely expressing regret at his actions late last year, but in fact was denigrating himself in a Nauseating way. According to one commentator, “If you’re nauseated you’re about to throw up, if you’re nauseous, you’re a toxic funk and you’re going to make someone else puke. These words are used interchangeably so often that it makes word nerds feel nauseated!”
Yet it would be churlish to deny that Mr Comey did not tellingly get his point across. If it is about communication only, then we should not cringe at the media usage of “comprise of”, “council” for “counsel” or “criteria” as a singular noun. There is, too, a current radio ad that blares about “the less (sic) plastic bags you use…” But for the very few who carp at these misuses of accepted expressions, they must now consider whether they are not in effect seeking to infringe the misusers’ freedom of expression.
Indeed, in this context of dichotomy, today’s leader in the Barbados Advocate raises an intriguing question as to whether the extent of freedom of expression might not differ in one person, depending on whether he or she is speaking officially or as an individual.
So that while the Honourable Minister of the Environment, Mr Denis Lowe, has unbridled freedom publicly to air his suspicions of, and views on, what he considers a probable future enactment of legislation permitting same sex marriage, the editorial wonders whether he is as politically or electorally free to do so in his capacity as the representative for the diverse constituency of Christ Church East. And while there are those who will condemn him for expressing even a personal view on the matter, there is nothing in the constitutional guarantee, on a plain reading, that appears to limit the choice of subject matter on which one may express an opinion.
An apt analogy is not far to seek. An employee is free, in the company of his or her friends, or even anonymously on social media, to express a personal view on any aspect of their workplace conditions. That same opinion, posted on social media in a circumstance where the poster may be identified, may lead to startlingly different results for that worker’s economic fortunes.
Similarly, I suppose with the freedom of expression as it pertains to the mode of its exercise. You may elide the past tense indicator to your heart’s content, put a “d” in privilege, and even append the understandable extra ”o” in “lose” so long as the communication is personal or among chums. For those communications of a more formal nature, such as court documents, examination scripts and general public addresses, there is a tried and tested cannon. Until it changes, as perhaps, given the historical development of the language, it will, you should use it.