Freedom of Speech or Responsibility to Do No Harm?

January 07, 2010
Cee Kay

I watched the Tuesday, January 5 episode “Infamy” of the series The Good Wife and it had a case about a young mom who committed suicide after her little girl was kidnapped and a TV show commentator made life hell for her by attacking her, saying she killed her little girl (who turned up alive at the end of the episode, by the way). He was shown leveling various charges on the mom, including that she killed her own daughter and that she had tried to get a late (third trimester) abortion (the latter charge proven to be false by the prosecution team). The husband of the deceased sued the commentator for wrongful death because it was his attacks that led the woman to take her own life. The prosecution team proved that the anchorman knew his claims were false but still attacked the woman on his show. The jury came back with a verdict against the defendant but the judge overturned it saying much as he found the actions of the defendant abhorrent, he (the defendant) was just exercising his right to freedom of speech. The defendant got off. This set me thinking.

What is more important - our right to freedom of speech or our responsibility to cause no harm? I am no lawyer, but to my non-lawyer mind it seems that another approach could have been tried for the case (I know I am too much invested in a show that was only someone's figment of imagination! Silly me) Maybe a stronger case could be made by showing that the TV show anchor's reckless, unsubstantiated claims about the kidnapped girl's mother drove her to take her own life? Isn't THAT is why he was responsible for her death? One can be held responsible for a death if they were the prime reason behind it, even if it wasn't their hand that killed. Now, some lawyer-brain please tell me if that kind of prosecution strategy is possible.

That brings me back to my question. Is one's right to be able to speak freely, above and beyond their responsibility to make sure their speech doesn't hurt someone else? They do have the right to "life, liberty and a pursuit of happiness", given to them by the constitution. Can someone else's right to free speech infringe upon this inalienable right granted to them? It can be argued that it was not the speech that killed the said person. But isn't it true that the speech definitely drove the person to take their own life? Do you know the power of words? They can hurt, sear, scathe and pierce like nothing else can. While it is true that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me", a mother who has just lost her child must already be in such a fragile state of mind that even the slightest unkind word might drive her to the brink of insanity. Should all this be taken into account before passing a judgment?

Is this whole discussion useless because it was just a fictional episode in a fictional series? I have seen this kind of relentless pursuit of parents by the media in Jonbenet Ramsey case, though the wrongful death scenario doesn’t fit there. What happened to "innocent until proven guilty"? Should the media (or public) be allowed to take matters in their own hands and pursue the people they imagine to be guilty?

Again - DOES my right to freedom of speech trump someone else's right to live (and pursue happiness)?

I am an optimist. And an opportunist. Thats why I believe "When life gives you lemons - make lemonade. Then sell the lemonade and make air freshner from the peels. Sell that too!"
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