The meaning of freedom of speech

By Joe Hhung

Shih Ming-teh, a former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party, is a revolutionary at heart. He led the World Human Rights Day demonstration in Kaohsiung in 1979 to demand an end to President Chiang Ching-kuo’s autocratic rule of Taiwan. Of course, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison for treason. He was pardoned by President Lee Teng-hui, who later had the criminal code amended to exculpate anyone who just talks about a revolution but does not try to start one. Mr. Shih, who earned fame for leading his million Redshirts in 2006 to topple President Chen, used to have a comrade, Cheng Nan-yung (鄭南榕). In 1984, Cheng founded the Age of Freedom (自由時代) magazines, of which Chen Shui-bian was “president,” to fight for freedom of speech for Taiwan; or rather for its independence. Cheng self-immolated on April 7, 1989, when a Taipei police squad tried to arraign him before district prosecutors for a hearing on his treason charges. The Democratic Progressive Party, of which Cheng was a member, has made him out to be a hero fighting for freedom of the press. So, on hearing a Cheng Kung University history professor compared Cheng to an Islamist terrorist, Shih called a press meeting in Taipei last Thursday to condemn the poor lady professor for “insulting Taiwan’s hero fighting for freedom of the press.” Another Cheng admirer, DPP Legislator Lee Ying-yuan, demanded that Professor W. H. Wang quit teaching history at the national university in Tainan named after Koxinga, who drove away the Dutch in the 17th century to claim Taiwan for China and whose Chinese name is Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功). The Cheng Nan-yung Foundation denounced the professor for taking no notice of history and insulting Islam. Under pressure, she apologized for what she didn’t actually say. Professor Wang said on last Wednesday at a university staff meeting that she opposed the naming of a new campus plaza Nan-yung, which literally means Southern Banyan Tree. In November last year, the university let students choose a name for the plaza; and the chosen name was Nan-yung. However, it was decided at the meeting that the plaza should not be named, because the chosen name was politically sensitive. It isn’t if one takes the name to mean southern banyan trees, which abound in Tainan. The professor didn’t say Cheng was an Islamist suicide bomber but likened the self-immolated fighter for his freedom of speech to one of hundreds of Arab terrorists, including those who hijacked an airliner to ram into New York’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The comparison wasn’t accurate, but quite apt. Professor Wang said, “He (Cheng) is like an Islamist suicide bomber, because I (he) want to die when things don’t go as I (he) wish or (and) want you to die with me.” She considered the self-immolation an act of disrespect for his life as well as one against democracy and against freedom.