As Chinese authorities crack down on various rumors spreading online that put social stability at risk, some people have argued that such rumors are protected under people's right to free speech.
However, rumors harm innocent individuals, filial harmony and social stability regardless of where or when they are spread, and rumors are completely irrelevant to the concept of freedom of expression.
Some people say that truth will eventually prevail, so we need to take a laissez-faire attitude toward rumors in a bid to let them run their course and eventually fade away.
China, however, has seen a series of rumors recently that have spread quickly and had far-reaching implications. The most recent example began on microblogs, where an Internet user posted about military vehicles entering Beijing amid a major incident, suggesting a coup.
Fabricating information is different from spreading unconfirmed information, as the two concepts are driven by different intentions. How could freedom of speech be defended if we turn our backs on slander? Can we tolerate fake of inferior products with the aim of promoting the free market?
Although wise people will not automatically accept rumors as the truth, in this era of fast-spreading information, many rumors have hurt innocent individuals before having a chance to be proven false. That's why most countries have laws or precedents to prevent or limit the dissemination of speech or ideas that, by their nature, carry the danger of substantive harm.
For this reason, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the famous Schenck case that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."
Many judges and lawyers in China said that although the Internet is a virtual world, its users should assume the same legal responsibilities as they would in the real world.
"Free speech on the Internet cannot go without limits, as it should not infringe upon others' legitimate rights, nor should it harm the real society," said Cheng Bin, a lawyer from Beijing-based Guandao Law Firm, adding that civilians should fulfill their obligations of maintaining online order while enjoying their right to free speech.
Yue Cheng, a noted lawyer in China, said rumormongers should accept civic, administrative or even criminal liabilities according to the consequences of the rumors they perpetuate.
Chinese authorities have shut down 16 websites for "fabricating or disseminating online rumors," especially via microblog posts. Beijing police have arrested 1,065 suspects and deleted more than 208,000 "harmful" online messages as part of an intensive nationwide crackdown on Internet-related crimes conducted since mid-February.
While cracking down on rumors that endanger public and state security, authorities should also study the roots of rumors and public sentiment. A more open and transparent government and the immediate issuance of relevant information could improve the government's credibility and better dispel rumors.