Calvin Cheng and Amos Yee: Where should we draw the line on freedom of speech?

By Emily A.

This is in addition to the problems of misquoting freedom of speech as seen in this Medium article: “It’s Time to Kill “Freedom of Speech“.

It’s troubling that people who want to invoke violence —be it physical or emotional — on an already marginalised group be defended on the grounds of free speech. This is exactly the kind of logic that has fuelled right-wing Americans and their bigoted speeches against LGBTs, non-white persons, gender non-conforming (GNCs), and women. And while the views expressed in the Medium article seems to run contrary to what defenders of freedom of speech have been pushing for, it raises a good point on where to draw the line, especially in relation to people who suffer from multiple forms of oppression.

A common misconception of free speech is that a person should be free from the consequences of their actions. But any free speech activist would know how to separate hate speech that incites violence from harmless criticism, and know that airing one’s opinion publicly means owning up to what they’d say.

So why did Calvin Cheng get a free pass on the murder of terrorist children? Why did Amos get to make objectifying remarks that sexually harassed a girl at the Anime Festival Asia?

Cheng’s case is troubling as it further enables Islamophobia that we’ve seen come from the West. Amos’ case continues to entrench misogyny and the practice of objectifying women. And since both are seen as public figures in Singapore (even Amos seems to agree with this on his social media accounts), they are more likely to face scrutiny for such remarks. So there’s a consequence that they can’t run away from – public outcry.

Some activists will still defend the right for people to say they want, taking the position that our current legal system clamps down on discordant voices with excessive punishment. Thankfully, some other activists are able to discern speech that incites violence from speech that should be protected under the principles of free speech. The freedom of speech argument worked for Amos before because his position opposing a dominant government revealed a disproportionate power dynamic. He was considered the underdog then, so it made sense that freedom of speech was invoked in his favour. But now that his position of privilege as a Chinese male is restored — perhaps even upgraded since he’s a “celebrity” — alongside a figure like Calvin Cheng, invoking the freedom of speech argument to defend his and Cheng’s right to free speech is harmful towards the oppressed social groups.

(As an aside, Amos Yee posted a half-assed apology on Facebook for his objectification of a 15-year-old asexual girl, with further troubling quotes that suggest his sexual lust for her such as “[s]he’s flaming me on Facebook, and now I’m calling out her bullshit and kind of making fun of her, it’s really turning me on (this is the kind of love-hate relationship that makes really good sex, do consider the offer rochelle [sic])”. The Medium article also pointed to examples of his misogynistic tendencies on Twitter. And on the off chance that our anti-feminist hero decides to read this: Dear Amos, you do know that supporting gay rights means you’re supporting one of the MANY things feminists are fighting for? Talk about ignorance and self-hatred when you say you hate feminists.)

I wouldn’t argue for the abolishment of freedom of speech outright as suggested by the Medium article, but the context to consider when using freedom of speech in someone’s defence should be considered before jumping the shark, especially if it continues to enable dominant forces in society, such as Western views that overgeneralises Islam as a threat, and toxic masculinity. As a whole we should not forget that hate speech and harassment should bring about consequences such as anger and public backlash.