The Future of Free Speech is an independent, nonpartisan think tank located at Vanderbilt University. We work to restore a resilient global culture of free speech in the digital age through knowledge, research, and advocacy.

The Value of Free Speech

Free speech is the bulwark of liberty; without it, no free and democratic society has ever been established or thrived. Free expression has been the basis of unprecedented scientific, social, and political progress that has benefitted individuals, communities, nations, and humanity itself. Millions of people derive protection, knowledge, and essential meaning from the right to challenge power, question orthodoxy, expose corruption, and address oppression, bigotry, and hatred.

At The Future of Free Speech, we believe that a robust and resilient culture of free speech must be the foundation for the future of any free, democratic society. Even as rapid technological change brings new challenges and threats, free speech must continue to serve as an essential ideal and a fundamental right for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, or social standing.

The Global Free Speech Recession

However, free speech has been in global decline for more than a decade. Left unchecked, this deterioration of free speech threatens individual freedom, civil society, and democratic institutions, as well as progress in science and philosophy. There are many reasons for the global decline in free speech, including the rise of authoritarianism on all continents. Even in open societies, the democratization and virality of online speech are increasingly seen as a threat rather than a precondition for well-functioning, free, tolerant, and pluralist societies. Threats – both real and imagined – from hate speech, extremism, terrorism, and disinformation have led to calls for stricter regulation of speech from both authoritarian and democratic governments, social media companies, individuals, and NGOs.

To mention just one example, the recent coronavirus has led not only to a global public health emergency but also to a global censorship pandemic. As many governments scramble to suppress misinformation, others have used the opportunity to grab even more power over the press and online opinions.

Such measures put both the value of and the right to free speech under pressure but also challenge defenders of free speech to reexamine, update, and upgrade the arguments for why free speech matters. Historical lessons are crucial to understanding the value of free speech, but in a digital age, in which propaganda and disinformation can travel the globe in seconds, it is no longer enough to rely solely on tried and tested free speech arguments from previous eras.

What to Do? 

To understand better and counter the decline of free speech, “The Future of Free Speech” project will seek to answer three big questions: Why is freedom of speech in global decline? How can we better understand and conceptualize the benefits and harms of free speech? And how can we create a resilient global culture of free speech that benefits everyone?

The objectives are to better understand why we need free speech and better explain why the freedom to speak is so fundamental. We will also extrapolate on how we can protect free speech while addressing legitimate concerns surrounding misinformation, extremism, and hate speech.

To do this, we intend to pursue a three-part endeavor:

(1) Through polling and research, we will measure global attitudes toward free speech and analyze whether common concerns and arguments used to justify restrictions of free speech are based on real or imagined harms.

(2) We will work to defend and strengthen existing standards needed to resist the global authoritarian deterioration of freedom of expression.

(3) Through outreach, we will provide activists, policymakers, academics, and other critical stakeholders with the data, arguments, and standards to help turn the tide of what we call the free speech recession.

These efforts will be available in reports and articles in both journals and media as well as events engaging both activists and decision-makers. Ultimately, The Future of Free Speech aims to generate knowledge and spark the involvement needed to energize activists, persuade skeptics, resist authoritarians, and foster a resilient global culture of free speech.

Who We Are

The Future of Free Speech was originally founded as a collaboration between the global judicial think tank Justitia and Vanderbilt University. Although we are an independent nonprofit organization, we are proud to be a part of Dialogue Vanderbilt, which advances Vanderbilt’s longstanding commitment to free expression, institutional neutrality, and civil discourse – and prepares students to contribute and to lead in a pluralistic, global society.

To learn more about our scholars and staff, take a look at our “Who We Are” page.