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Sound of Silent Speech

[TamilNet] – One can speak not only through words but through expressive conduct often called “Symbolic speech” – legally defined as nonverbal gestures and actions intended to communicate a message. In Western liberal democracies, most forms of symbolic speech are constitutionally protected.
The Tamil diaspora’s recent use of such protected expressive speech to publicize symbols of Colombo oppression as philatelic stamps has infuriated Sri Lanka diplomats, and is posing a long-term threat to Sri Lanka’s image abroad. The autocratic suppression of free speech and threat to life have progressively shaped a local compliant media that exercises self-censorship, and has ill-prepared Sri Lanka’s diplomats to confront the individual freedom enjoyed by the Tamil diaspora in the West.

The “offending” stamps published in France, UK, Canada, and the US, are likely harbinger of future tactics the diaspora may employ in their countries of domicile. The reaction of Minister Peiris and other Sri Lanka officials have surprised the activists on the impact such symbolic actions can have on Colombo, members of the group that published stamps in France said.

In France, the stamps were produced using an online service offered by La Poste, a private business enterprise, not funded by French tax-payers. The Company deals with postal matters in several countries around France. The private businesses are likely to be only marginally affected by diplomatic pressure arising from France’s foreign policy objectives, unless the images are blatantly illegal or constitutionally unprotected.

While local media in Colombo reported that French Ambassador “apologized,” to Colombo on the stamp matter, the most relevant statement reported by UPI involved French embassy quoting the publisher’s statement: La Poste called the release of the “stamps with inappropriate visuals” a “mistake,” the French Embassy in Sri Lanka said in a statement, The soft-language used in the statement by La Poste reflects the contradiction between the internal freedom enjoyed by the french on their right to publish and France’s diplomatic need to maintain cordial relationship with other countries. Further, La Posta and the French embassy could not have been unaware of possible legal challenges that may ensue if barring publication of symbols can be shown to be racially or ethnolinguistically discriminatory.

In some countries, post-9/11 “terror laws” have eroded the supreme position of individual freedom, a pillar of western liberal jurisprudence in free democratic society, and perhaps may bar some symbols, but many symbols of Colombo oppression are not cognizable as illegal speech as a matter of French law in particular, and common law in general, legal sources in Washington said.

Spokesperson for Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), an activist group seeking legal redress to Tamil victims of Sri Lanka war said, “two evolving streams of activity will soon trouble Colombo in dampening Tamil diaspora activity. One, the bogey of ‘LTTE rump’ Colombo uses as a badge of criminality on the diaspora, will likely diminish with possible libel suits against fraudulent use of the label. Two, with the era of armed-struggle fast receding, countries that have proscribed the LTTE, will face moral dilemma and legal challenges in extending the ban,” TAG spokesperson added.

The thinking of US justices to the “terror” argument to blunt speech rights is demonstrated in Virginia v. Black, where the Court struggled with how much one can suppress conduct without banning expression. The Court held that cross burning by Ku Klux Clan was a “virulent form of expression” and is constitutionally protected, but declared Virginia law that banned ALL forms of cross burning as unconstitutional.

On the Virginia law, the dissenting Justice Thomas, failed to convince the court when he argued that the Ku Klux Klan is a ‘‘terrorist organization,’’ that there exists a ‘‘connection between cross burning and violence,’’ and that a burning cross is ‘‘now widely viewed as a signal of impending terror and lawlessness.’

“When not intended to intimidate, many forms of symbolic speech qualify as protected speech. So would be all forms of visual images, except virulant symbols intended to intimidate, that appear in stamps are protected, and attempts to attach the badge of terror by Colombo is unlikely to succeed despite mild pronouncements,”

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