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‘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. We believe that, 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

Yet, 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 progress in science and philosophy. There are many reasons for the decline of global free speech, including the rise of authoritarianism on all continents. But, 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, while others use the opportunity to grab even more power over both the press and online opinions.

Such measures put both the value of and the right to free speech under pressure. But it also challenges 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 goal is to understand better why we need free speech. And to explain better why the freedom to speak is so fundamental and what can we do to protect it without sacrificing core values 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 onslaught on 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, articles, resources, events, professional and activist networks, media, and more. Ultimately, the “Future of Free Speech” aims to generate the knowledge and to spark the involvement needed to energize activists, persuade sceptics, resist authoritarians, and foster a resilient global culture of free speech.

Who we are

The “Future of Free Speech” is being launched by the Danish think tank Justitia in cooperation with Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science and Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression project. We will bring an evidence-based approach to the burning questions raised by the principles and practices of free speech in an interconnected digital world.

Take a look at our “Who We Are” page.