What does free speech really mean?

Free Speechby Timothy Garton Ash

Yale University Press. 491p $30

Late in the summer the letter from the University of Chicago’s dean, John Ellison, to incoming members of the class of 2020 set off the latest set of skirmishes in higher education. The dean of students notes that one of the defining characteristics of the University of Chicago is a commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. He cites a recent faculty report that encourages members of the community to “speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.” Therefore, he explains to the entering class, the university does not support “trigger warnings” or the canceling of controversial speakers or anything that will inhibit the free exchange of ideas.

Advertisement

Critics object that Ellison’s letter begs a number of important questions. Do trigger warnings really compromise the value of free exchange? Do they really just coddle our youth? Or rather, do they help people prepare to hear new and potentially difficult ideas rather than simply recoil in shock? Nonetheless, support from the University of Chicago’s president, Robert J. Zimmer, was swift. “Free speech,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “is at risk in the very institution where it should be assured: the university.”

This spring, at the commencement of Fordham University’s Law School, Loretta Preska, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, recited a litany of examples that, in her view, suggest free speech has been suppressed on college campuses. She warned new lawyers to be “wary of groupthink” and “the politically correct waves of the day.” Censorship is not American, she said, and the history of jurisprudence in the United States consistently champions the rights protected by the First Amendment.

While Timothy Garton Ash would not be unsympathetic to these views, his new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, brings to the discussion a refreshing depth. Garton spent his early career studying movements within countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where Communist regimes clearly did suppress free speech in a systematic fashion. The inhibition of free speech is still a political and social reality, to varying degrees, throughout the world. Yet the pervasiveness of the internet has changed the game and made issues of free speech far more complex than they have ever been.

Ash calls this new condition “Cosmopolis,” where an unprecedented number of people can fly from place to place and even more can access instant communication from distant lands. In 1919 Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated that the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect someone who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater and creates a panic. Nearly 100 years later, how would Holmes regard a raunchy, 13-minute film produced outside of Los Angeles and posted on YouTube as “The Real Life of Muhammad”? What Ash calls “malignant rubbish” is believed to have inflamed two million viewers, some of whom perhaps, Ash suggests, attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed the ambassador. Cosmopolis is its own crowded theater, and in this theater what we mean by “free speech” is not always clear.

The rise of the internet, however, does not just mean instant global communication among a vast number of groups and individuals. It also means new, and massively powerful, companies that have regulatory capacities akin to those of governments. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon—Ash calls these “big cats” who shape the current meaning of free speech together with the “big dogs” of sovereignties, like the United States and China. And because the United States is the biggest dog, it can frequently set the agenda for the whole world, often in contention with other big dogs like China or the big cats like Google, and often in ways that are responsive to aggregative power of end-users, consumers and citizens—in other words, us mice with access to the click of a mouse.

In the highly interdependent world of the Cosmopolis, social norms are usually more effective than laws. As highly as he regards those who invoke First Amendment jurisprudence, Ash is not overly optimistic at the capacity of legislation to protect or promote free speech, even in liberal democracies. Except in specific limit cases where, for instance, laws may protect citizens from extremist violence or whistle blowers from retaliation or children from internet predators, we should not look to courts or lawmakers. Rather we should “do correspondingly more to develop shared norms and practices that enable us to make best use of this essential freedom.”

The 10 principles Ash articulates in this book are drawn from a project he has led at Oxford University and published globally in 13 languages on freespeechdebate.com. Covering a topic of particular concern to the free speech debate—including violence, diversity, religion and privacy—each chapter begins with a single-sentence formula that is subsequently discussed with great subtlety.

For instance, regarding religion Ash posits the principle: “We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.” That is, free speech must be exercised in a way that honors our fellow citizens but is not afraid of criticizing religious doctrines and practices. While such a principle may work for a secularist like Ash, he admits that to politicians in India, who operate in a context of religious density that includes Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, the distinction between believer and belief makes less sense. As Ash notes, in their environment, the more operative principle might be: “Respect me, respect my belief.” Blasphemy laws were established in many countries precisely to keep the peace among people of diverse religious convictions. And yet, as Ash argues, while speech on religion will always challenge deep sensibilities and pose risks, the same speech will never be truly free unless we adopt a principle like the one he articulates.

Ash’s discussion on religion, as on all other topics, is particularly fine because it leads us through a range of complicated problems with great sensitivity and tact. He models the mixture of openness and robust civility he argues we need in Cosmopolis.

This is an excellent, intelligent and comprehensive book that provides an elegant discussion of free speech and supplies a range of examples that help us see the costs, tradeoffs and tensions. Free speech is more frequently invoked as sacrosanct than it is presented as a matter for discernment. Free Speech is an important exception.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Neither a self-help book nor a how-to manual, One Beautiful Dream nonetheless inspires self-reflection and offers concrete, practical lessons embedded within colorful stories and memorable scenes.
Serena SigillitoJuly 13, 2018
The author of "The Devil Wears Prada" writes a sequel of sorts.
Megan K. McCabeJuly 13, 2018
An interpretive essay and some questions for reflection on the Catholic Book Club's new selection, "Dagger John" by John Loughery.
Kevin SpinaleJuly 11, 2018
A quiet life centered on the rhythms of prayer, work and play turns out to be...rather worth it.
Gregory HillisJuly 05, 2018