A protest at an SRC debate at the Great Hall that ended in a fight is not necessarily protected freedom of expression, according to two free speech experts contacted by Wits Vuvuzela.
Last week Tuesday a physical fight broke out at the Great Hall between Project W, Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) and Wits Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) after the Wits EFF disrupted the SRC Great Debate with a protest.
This led to the debate being cancelled by the organisers, days later the seven students who were present for the protest and ensuing brawl were suspended.
This raises questions as to whether the Wits EFF had their freedom of expression compromised as they were at first expressing themselves through singing and dancing.
“I don’t think freedom of expression includes the right to physically disrupt the election process, including what appeared to be threats or real physical violence,” said Anton Harber, chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute.
He said that when students enter in a process such as the SRC elections they have to accept a set of conduct and rules.
“You have to operate within those rules or challenge those rules but, no, freedom of expression does not include the right to disrupt elections for example or physically threaten other people, other candidates,” said Harber.
William Bird, the director of Media Monitoring Africa, said that instead of having their own freedom of expression compromised, the Wits EFF compromised the freedom of other students.
“That said some rights can legitimately be limited if the students who were suspended were themselves violent they sought to limit other people’s right to freedom of expression by effectively shutting down a peaceful debate.”
The university later used the Twitter accounts of the Wits EFF members for the investigation, a move that the organisation said was unfair.
Bird said that if the comments had been intercepted online or had been private then it would have been a violation of their freedom of expression and right to privacy.
“But if it is the case that the comments were tweets in the public domain then I don’t see how them being used in a hearing for or against them could be a limitation on them,” said Bird.
Harber said that if a person is making public social media posts, it’s the same as shouting it on a street corner.
“You’re responsible for what you say, what you publish and what you broadcast. [If] it’s in the public arena, it can be used against you,” said Harber.
Wits Vuvuzela, Wits SRC and EFF say student suspensions are unfair, August 22