The concept of free speech is the foundation upon which all other rights are based.
Like any other right, of course, free speech is logically subject to certain restrictions. Legal limitations should be as narrow and as well-defined as possible, with the purpose being to safeguard other fundamental rights, such as personal safety or recourse to justice.
When it comes to speech that is harmful, hateful or otherwise “reckless,” the standard for “legal speech” is much more relaxed than the standard for “responsible speech,” which varies according to where the speech occurs, how widely it is disseminated and who delivers it.
Which brings us to recent indulgences in clearly “reckless speech” by Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin, who as the highest elected public official in the country should accordingly have his statements held to the highest standard of accountability. (Put another way, the premier’s words have weight.)
This past Saturday, Premier McLaughlin – in public, in front of a crowd and a TV camera – accused his former political assistant, now turned political rival, Kenneth Bryan, of being “arrested more than once” while he worked for the premier.
Premier McLaughlin’s potentially damaging allegation was accompanied by no actual evidence … merely the recollection of a chat that supposedly occurred two-and-a-half years ago between him and former Police Commissioner David Baines, who has since departed from these islands and is presumably enjoying his post-Cayman life in a rather nice locale of Europe.
For the record, police told us early Wednesday afternoon that “we have not been able to find any other arrest of Mr. Bryan.” If we could obtain that clarifying information so easily, the premier certainly could have as well.
It turns out, Saturday’s incident wasn’t Premier McLaughlin’s first foray into reckless speech.
In February, in the midst of the criminal trial of former University College of the Cayman Islands President Hassan Syed, the premier participated in a radio interview in which he called Syed a “scamp” and questioned the evidence of a police officer who had testified in the case.
Premier McLaughlin’s reckless speech resulted in a three-day delay in the trial, led to an application from the defense team to discharge the jury, and jeopardized the outcome of the proceedings.
Lest anyone forgets – we at the Compass certainly will not – in June 2015, Premier McLaughlin took to the floor of the Legislative Assembly and accused this newspaper of engaging in a “treasonous attack on the Cayman Islands and on all the people of Cayman” – for the simple reason that he did not like an editorial we had written (an editorial that, by the way, called for the rooting out of corruption in our fair country).
In that instance, the premier’s speech ignited a firestorm of controversy that attracted international scrutiny and engendered deeply negative attention from global observers.
This editorial singles out Premier McLaughlin not because of who he is (Alden) but because of the position he holds (Premier). He has the highest office, and he should have the highest standards.
The tendency to engage in reckless speech is not confined to any particular segment of our society. Tune in to any local “talk-back” radio show or peruse the comments sections on local “blogs” and you will discover reckless commentary from all corners, from important public officials down to members of Cayman’s anonymous populace.
Earlier this year, three MLAs – Alva Suckoo, Arden McLean and Winston Connolly – alleged local law firms had hired private investigators to follow them because of their opposition to the Legal Practitioners Bill.
They eventually made a report to police, who were unable to substantiate their sensational claims. The recklessness was there; the evidence was not.
When reckless speech is uttered by a public official (and particularly when the official happens, like Premier McLaughlin, to be an attorney), the salient observation is that either he knows exactly what he’s doing … or he doesn’t.
Which is worse?