Obstruction of Election Campaigns: Don’t Misunderstand Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech and free elections are important rights of the people guaranteed by the Constitution. However, it is unacceptable to abuse these rights and repeat potentially defamatory or intimidating behavior.

In the House of Representatives by-election in Tokyo Constituency No. 15 in April, the actions of a candidate of a political group, Tsubasa no To (Tsubasa Party), and his camp have caused a stir.

The group appeared at other candidates’ stump speeches and interrupted them by shouting such words as “scum” and “traitors” over a loudspeaker. On one occasion, it stormed in front of another candidate’s office and blasted the sound at full volume.

In addition, the Tsubasa Party distributed scenes of its actions to a video-sharing website. It is likely that the group was trying to attract attention by flaunting its radical behavior.

The affected candidates of other parties’ camps, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), were forced to stop giving advance notice of their scheduled speeches or reduce the frequency of their speeches.

Stump speeches are a valuable opportunity for candidates to make their own assertions and for voters to hear them directly. If such opportunities are taken away, fair elections cannot be maintained, and the foundation of democracy could be shaken.

The Tsubasa Party said: “We just went to the other camps to ask questions. This is freedom of expression and freedom of elections guaranteed by law.” The group says it will field its candidates in the Tokyo gubernatorial and other elections, and will continue to engage in similar activities in the by-election campaign.

Article 12 of the Constitution states that the freedoms and rights of the people shall be maintained by “the constant endeavor of the people” and that they “shall refrain from any abuse of these freedoms and rights and shall always be responsible for utilizing them for the public welfare.”

It must be said that the Tsubasa Party mistakenly thinks that freedom of expression and freedom of elections are guaranteed without limitation. The group should strictly refrain from any behavior that is contrary to the public welfare.

During the by-election campaign, the Metropolitan Police Department issued a warning to the Tsubasa camp, cautioning that its actions could constitute the crime of “obstructing freedom of elections” under the Public Offices Election Law, which prohibits obstruction of speeches. However, the MPD has not charged the group.

Regarding trouble during street speeches, there have been arguments in court over the propriety of the Hokkaido police removing a man and a woman who jeered at then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the 2019 House of Councillors election campaign.

The district and high courts acknowledged that the actions of some of the police officers had violated freedom of expression. Isn’t it possible that such judicial decisions have had a chilling effect on enforcement against obstruction of election campaigns?

To which cases should the crime of obstructing freedom of elections be applied? The ruling and opposition parties need to clearly lay out specific criteria. And if the current law cannot handle the situation, they should consider amending the law as well.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 10, 2024)