Say What You Will?


A recent cover story in The Economist warns that free speech is under attack in much of the world, through government repression, assassinations of journalists by nonstate actors, and the rising insistence by minority groups that they have a right not to be offended.1 China’s Great Firewall polices websites and censors an estimated 13 percent of social media posts; Chinese advocates of free speech risk being jailed, and many have been prosecuted for what they say.

Timothy Garton Ash, New York City, October 2010
Dominique Nabokov
Timothy Garton Ash, New York City, October 2010

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that fifty journalists, in eighteen countries, were murdered in 2015, and at year’s end nearly two hundred were imprisoned. Since 2010, more than 450 journalists have been driven into exile. These figures don’t include nonfatal assaults or threats; undoubtedly many journalists have been frightened into silence by the fate of their colleagues.

Universities, like the press and the Internet, are supposed to be bastions of free speech. But a Chinese government directive forbids university teachers from discussing the “Seven Don’t-Mentions,” among which are universal values, Western constitutional democracy, and press freedom. On a lesser scale, commentators warn that on US campuses hypersensitive students are stifling free speech with complaints about “microaggressions” and demands for “trigger warnings” and safe spaces.

At the same time, vile, violent, and deceitful speech has never been more prevalent. As Timothy Garton Ash writes in Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, “the internet is…history’s largest sewer.” Terrorist incitements are frequent; lies and disinformation abound; trolls and haters are everywhere. A 2014 Pew survey found that 73 percent of Internet users have witnessed harassment on online discussion sites, and 40 percent have experienced it themselves; fully one fourth have encountered physical threats addressed to someone on the Internet. Women are particularly frequent targets: the Justice Department reports that three fourths of cyberstalking and cyber harassment victims are women. Recently The Guardian analyzed seventy million comments on its articles, and found that the ten writers who got the most abuse were eight women and two black men.

What principles should govern a connected world where speech is at once imperiled and too easy to use to do harm? That is the question Garton Ash sets out to answer in Free Speech, an informative and bracing defense of free speech liberalism in the Internet age. He reviews the philosophical underpinnings of free speech, analyzes the threats to free speech in today’s environment, and proposes principles we should embrace to foster free speech in the face of novel threats.

The book is part of an ambitious project inaugurated by Garton Ash and his Oxford colleagues: an international, multilingual forum to discuss free speech controversies. By my count the project’s index now contains nearly four thousand entries covering 163 topics. Garton Ash tells us…

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