#FreeSpeech Under Attack?

A friend and I went took the opportunity to attend the Durham Castle Lecture about Free Speech on Wednesday. The speaker was political historian and free-speech advocate Professor Timothy Garton Ash from Oxford. It was an interesting presentation of two main halves; systems of speech in our interconnected world, and principles for speaking freely with ‘robust civility’.

He opened with two quick questions for the audience.

  1. Is there anyone who does not think free-speech is a good and important thing? (One person put their hand up).
  2. Does anyone not have a smartphone (magic box)? (One person didn’t).

This set the stage for him to explore just how interconnected the world is becoming. His image was that we are becoming a world of neighbours in a great city. These changes are both physical, with mass migration, and virtual, with the rise of the internet in developing countries as well as in the west.

This greats a ‘fantastic chance’ for speech and communication, but also risks ‘enormous danger’. This is a world where a fatwa from Tehran can result in attempted attacks in London and Paris, a world where a known prankster in South California releases a video called ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ which results in over 50 deaths in the resulting riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And so the question for Timothy Garton Ash is:

How do we maximise the chances of free speech and minimise the risks?

To answer this requires understanding the significance of the paradigm shift which has happened.

The Old Way of looking at free speech was to follow the rules of the nation states and their court systems. If you travelled you would be subject to different regulations on what you could and could not say – When in Rome, as it were.

But with the Internet, the New Way of looking at it is to realise that Rome is everywhere and what is said there doesn’t stay there; it spreads virtually and geographically.

Rather than just being controlled by the power of the state, he identifies four interpenetrating layers of a kind of matrix in which free speech occurs and is shaped by.

  1. There are the international treaties and organisations.
  2. The ‘Big Dogs’.
  3. The ‘Big Cats’.
  4. The ‘Mice’.

The international treaties would include things such as the Bill of Human Rights from the EU or ICANN, which manages and deals with a lot of the stuff that makes the internet ‘work’ such as the Domain Name System (DNS).

The Big Dogs are the nation states rules and regulations. The First Amendment in the USA is a good example; a government regulation which maintains free speech in a particular geographical location.

The Big Cats would be companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on. Their influence is huge. With an impossibly large to imagine number of regular monthly users (1.9 Billion) Facebook has become a dominant force in the world of social media. Below, the Blue is Facebook.

Free Speech Debate Website

This means that for these 1.9 Billion users, much of their online speech is dictated by the Terms of Service provided by Facebook – which is enforced primarily by algorithms.

Internet Terms of Service for social media companies are often:

  • ‘non-transparent,
  • non-accountable, and
  • non-appealable’.

Timothy Garton Ash illustrated this point by referring to the story of the editor of Norwegian paper ‘Aftenposten’ who uploaded the iconic Vietnamese war photo of the naked girl fleeing only to have it removed as a violation of the Terms of Service. After a media outcry it was eventually restored. The question is, what about those users who don’t have the platform to appeal to preserve their free speech?

Lastly, there’s the Mice. And the Mice are us.

What can we do in the face of the megalithic entities and power structures?

“We can do a hell of a lot!”

Timothy Garton Ash pointed to the various successful anti-piracy campaigns such as Stop SOPA (led by individuals such as Aaron Swartz, who more than most has shown the impact that the individal can make when we communicate and organise effectively) to demonstrate his point. I would suggest that the success of the contemporary so-called ‘populist’ movements which have led to the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns also demonstrate the ability of the Mice to make their voices heard.

Given these four layers which influence free-speech, then to focus simply on the Law isn’t enough. There needs to be a more comprehensive approach.

This is where Timothy Garton Ash’s involvement in the Free Speech Debate project comes in.

Their intention is to have transcultural (not simply inter-cultural) discussions on the nature of speech in an attempt to find some basic norms which can help create the chance of free-speech while minimising the dangers. This involves speaking around the world. Last week it was India, next week it’ll be Turkey.

He says that there are two important questions:

  1. How free should speech be?
  2. How should free speech be?

The first is a question of ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’ of content.
The second is a question of ‘attitude’ and ‘conduct’ of presentation.

These questions are concerned with what he calls ‘the gamble of freedom’, and the answer is ‘Robust Civility’. 

Robustness without manners can lead to violence, and manners without robustness can lead to not saying anything at all. The combination promotes a healthy respect for the other whilst enabling a genuine commitment to personal beliefs.

The Free Speech Debate presents 10 Principles to which, balanced out, they believe should help to facilitate free speech in accordance with a slightly modified version of Article 19 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.

Here ‘and able’ is the important distinction from Article 19, recognising the agency of the individual.

Timothy Garton Ash didn’t go through each of the ten principles so they’re listed below and I’d encourage you to go and have a look at them on the Free Speech Debate website.


Having outlined the structures which influence free speech and presented some key principles for how that free speech should be defined and conducted, Timothy Garton Ash then turned to how free speech is under attack.

It is here that things got interesting.

To start with he compared his experience of speaking abroad in different places five years ago and said that it has become less free to speak almost everywhere other than Burma, which is perhaps having the opposite problem of too much free speech.

Then he turned his attention to the West, and described a recent rise in Anti-liberalism which, in his view, was to a greater or lesser extent a reaction against the financial crash of 2008. It was this reaction which has developed into the fragmentation of the media, the rise of ‘echo chambers’ and ‘fake news’. In essence, free speech is under attack from those who supported Trump, from those who supported Brexit and those who are currently supporting Le Pen (never minding that each of those three situations are distinct and that while there may be those who support all three, they are most definitely not synonymous movements). He stressed the need for a good and honest media as required for democracy. I’ll return to these points shortly.

These attacks can be described as three vetos.

  1. The Assassin’s Veto
  2. The Heckler’s Veto
  3. The “I’m offended” Veto

The first is essentially the threat of violence if someone says or does something. The natural example was that of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

The second is the simple disruption and drowning out of the other’s voice to prevent or disuade them from speaking.

The last is the idea that certain forms of speech shouldn’t be allowed because someone will be offended. This was encapsulated in the PREVENT agenda which was initially supposed to tackle radicalisation of students but has been used to ban or no-platform non-violent ‘extremists’. One such example was when Germaine Greer was banned from speaking at a university on feminism because of her views (which were not planned to be discussed) on transgender issues. Another would be that of not allowing Tommy Robinson to speak of his experiences in Luton.

Timothy Garton Ash affirmed the idea that safespaces and trigger warnings are helpful in limited contexts on a university campus, but stressed that you shouldn’t consider the entire campus to be a safespace. More than that he argued that people like Tommy Robinson should be allowed to speak to students because they would destroy him and take him apart in the Q&As.

He concluded by returning to classical liberal values as outlined at the start and then the floor was open for questions.

Whilst I had been sitting there listening to the presentation I found that there was lots of really helpful elements which he had presented. The four layers and the ten principles with the three vetos were all interesting concepts which seemed on the whole to work well – I still need to reflect further on the rest of the ten principles and see how far I would agree with them or not. However, what had struck me through out was that Timothy Garton Ash wasn’t shy about his own political views and opinions, particularly on topics such as Brexit and Trump. The way that he talked about “Fake news” and the Media made it clear that he would consider himself to be ‘on their side’ – something which he made clearer whilst responding to one of the earlier questions. As such I found myself sitting there wondering to what extent his free speech principles were wedded to his own political beliefs, or whether these two things were separate constructs which met naturally in him as he was the one speaking.

I did not for a moment begrudge him using his lecture to discuss his opinions in a public context, but the way that he presented his case about freedom of speech being under attack resulted in him characterising it as being under attack from ‘the right’. So I asked him this question:

I applaud your commitment to trans-cultural dialogue on these topics. I wonder, however, if there’s need for a trans-political dialogue as well? You’ve talked about echo chambers on the right, I wonder if you could talk about echo chambers on the left? For example I know many people were aghast when Brexit occurred because they hadn’t seen or known anyone who would have been in favour of it on Facebook etc.

He responded partially, as he was responding to a couple of questions in a row. His response was along the lines that of course there are echo chambers on the left and that the New York Times and the Guardian had found themselves to be out of touch with the white working classes and that this was something that needs to change.

It was nice to hear an acknowledgement that there are echo chambers at the various stages of the political/ideological spectrum however there was no comment on embarking in dialogue with those of other political perspectives to discuss principles for free speech.

I’ve written about echo chambers on twitter before and I consciously strive to be exposed to arguments and perspectives on all sides of different issues.

One conclusion which I have come to is that Timothy Garton Ash is right when he says that democracy requires a good media. However I suspect that he would view “fake news” as stories presented by ‘alternative’ media sites which are then ‘debunked’ by ‘Main Stream Media’. I would suggest that the reality is far more complex and that there have been multiple and repeated occasions where the ‘Mainstream Media’ makes assertions which are then demonstrated to be false. Journalistic Integrity should be a non-partisan value! That’s not a counter-claim saying, “No, the left are the ones who are attacking free speech”. I would suggest that free speech is not the property of either the left or the right. In the recent past it was the religious right which wanted to ban music and video games which were offensive and today it’s largely speaking those on the left who want to police what can and cannot be said. Give it a decade or so and I imagine the pendulum will swing once again. I also wonder where “the media” would fit in the layers. I doubt they would be Big Dogs or Cats, but they’re certainly not mice. 

My friend and I walked away from the Great Hall of Durham Castle, replete with its high ceilings and larger than life portraits on the walls, having been listening to an Oxford university professor speak to a room of largely white, well educated, generally politically liberal people and wondered whether, as good as it was, this was the living embodiment of academia in its ivory towers.


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