The Price of Free Speech (2016)

Copy of the #TheSafeSpace column published on the 13th of January 2016 in the Times Of Swaziland:

It would be extremely rude of me if I did not start with wishing each one of you a Happy New Year!  Unfortunately, #TheSafeSpace was not available in last Wednesday’s edition of the Times but content was shared through my blog.  In a piece titled ‘The Race to End Racism’, I wrote on the now infamous ‘black people are monkeys’ racist comment that sent this part of the world into a frenzy.  As the uproar was in full swing, other parties joined in, adding their own racist sentiments.  Due to the enormous amount of public backlash, their respective places of employment took action through suspensions and termination of contracts. Now, a few days ago, South African’s very own Gareth Cliff used Twitter to weigh in on the discussion and tried to be clever with words. Gareth has always been a man with a lot to say and not one to shy away from controversy, in his roles as a radio DJ or member of the judging panel on the popular talent show – Idols South Africa. For the context of this article, it is also important to mention that Gareth is white.

To illustrate just how racism boils the blood, it only took seven  words for him to infuriate the masses and prompt Idols’ distributor M-Net to chop him from the upcoming season. In response to comment that labelled black people as ‘monkeys’, Gareth said ‘people don’t understand free speech at all’. Wow!  Personally, I found his comment to be rather ironic considering that he is clearly one of those people that does not understand free speech at all.  For far too long, ‘free speech’ has been constantly viewed from one side and this has led to high rates of global ignorance that we cannot even begin to quantify. The general misconception is that we have the right to say whatever we want, whenever ever we want.  In reality, Free Speech is a right that comes at a price which includes terms and conditions (T&Cs). The T&Cs ensure that we don’t cross the line and end up with Free Speech’s evil twin, Hate Speech. In as much as people are permitted to express themselves, their comments or actions should not infringe on the rights of others.  In other words, Free Speech cannot be used to justify incidents that promote racism, discrimination or homophobia.  I was genuinely baffled that a man who is backed by privilege, could publish such an ignorant comment on a platform where he has amassed over one million ‘followers’.

Witnessing a public figure try to mount a defense for racism through a public platform, makes one realize just how extensive the problem is.  If truth be told, the only reaction that is expected from a white person in response to racism is STRONG CONDEMNATION.  We need to see statements that begin with: ‘Racism is wrong’, ‘There is no place for racism on earth’ or ‘Dear Racists, please take a seat and stop hating’.  Any deviation from this condemnation, no matter how slight, will been seen as sympathizing with racists and proceed to evoke feelings that will cause an uproar and in Gareth’s case, actively hinder professional prospects. Racism is not a concept that is up for discussion and it is certainly not something we can cover with the blanket of Free Speech.

Not long after his seven  word comment, Gareth wrote an apology which included the statement, ‘I need to continue my education’.  We can only hope that this education will lead him towards sensitivity and awareness on the daily struggles of black people.  We also hope that the media attention will encourage others to get educated on racism, its implications and how painful it is when someone trivalises, defends, promotes or dismisses it.  

Feel free to share your comments with me through Twitter (@chr1sfleming), blog ( or email (  Until we meet again, goodbye.


2 thoughts on “The Price of Free Speech (2016)

  1. I completely agree with you. The only comment we want to hear from a white man is condemnation where racism has occurred. Frankly anything is trending, many of us leap at a chance to have a say on the matter just to be heard without really thinking about the effect it will have on whoever is going to hear or read it. This should be a lesson to everyone to think and reflect before typing on social media


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