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Free Expression in the Global City

By Henry Reichman

Free Speech: Ten Principles for A Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

“Never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression as this. And never have the evils of unlimited free expression— death threats, paedophile images, sewage-tides of abuse— flowed so easily across frontiers.”

So reads the final sentence of the opening paragraph of Timothy Garton Ash’s remarkable, informative, and provocative survey of free speech and its enemies in the contemporary world. Simultaneously bold manifesto and considered meditation, Free Speech benefits not only from the author’s prodigious research and graceful style but also from a major project through which correspondents across the globe critiqued and debated his propositions through a multilingual website, The result is perhaps the most ambitious and wide-ranging exploration of the constellation of disputes and discussions surrounding free expression on a global scale ever published.

After a brief introduction to the “post-Gutenberg” world of communication, Ash divides the book into two parts. Part 1, about a third of the volume, consists of chapters on “Cosmopolis,” a survey of the global context for communication, and “Ideals,” a proclamation of Ash’s tolerant liberalism. “Cosmopolis” ends with an extensive recounting of events surrounding the infamous “Innocence of Muslims” video that sparked, among other protests, the fatal attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Concludes Ash:

A sleazy little video posted on YouTube by a convicted fraudster in Southern California had dictated the agenda of the US president, secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; prompted YouTube to exercise arbitrary private censorship; given the Salafists a card to play against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; become the occasion or pretext for violent demonstrations in many countries, resulting in the death of more than 50 people; and brought a $100,000 price on the filmmaker’s own head, offered for transparently political reasons by a Pakistani government minister. . . . Welcome to cosmopolis.

Such is the complex and connected world in which we live. But, adds Ash, if “the connected world can multiply a millionfold the snarls of obscurantist bigotry, to fatal effect, it can also amplify the quieter voices of courageous reason.” And it is to courage and reason that “Ideals” turns, offering an overarching argument for how speech should be free, but also how free speech should best be exercised. “A central contention of this book is that we should limit free speech as little as possible by law and the executive action of governments or corporations,” Ash asserts, “but do correspondingly more to develop shared norms and practices that enable us to make best use of this essential freedom.”

Part 2 elaborates a program suitable to the world of “Cosmopolis” and devoted to the respectful open-mindedness of “Ideals.” Here Ash explicates ten fundamental principles, refined and developed with participants on the website, devoting a chapter to each:

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

2. Violence: We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.

3. Knowledge: We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge. 4. Journalism: We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.

5. Diversity: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

6. Religion: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.

7. Privacy: We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent scrutiny that is in the public interest.

8. Secrecy: We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.

9. Icebergs: We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.

10. Courage: We decide for ourselves and face the consequences.

I reproduce these chapter titles and principles, first, because I agree that taken together they comprise a desirable agenda. As Ash plainly puts it, “If everyone everywhere followed them, everyone everywhere would be better off.” But I include them also because they conveniently demonstrate the book’s extraordinary scope. For each of these principles is elaborated through a range of varied and complex examples taken from contemporary life, both in the “advanced” countries of “the West,” especially the United States and Ash’s native Britain, and in less “developed,” and frequently more authoritarian, places.

It is impossible to cover here even a small sample of the many controversies, disputes, and issues probed and analyzed by Ash. Suffice it to say that even free-speech junkies will find much that is new and informative, and all readers will be challenged by the views presented. Although the book is densely argued, well-sourced, and laden with information, Ash, whose previous writings on Eastern Europe gained a wide audience, remains a master of aphorism. To give one example: “Artists are to speech what explorers are to travel.” Or another: “A university without student protests against visiting speakers would be like a forest without birds.”

Consider also one small story that Ash relates while discussing how humor can help maintain a culture of “robust civility” that “allows for the provocative, the transgressive . . . and the offensive.” During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Ash relates, “on the burnt-out shell of the post office in Sarajevo, destroyed in bitter fighting as Bosniak Bosnians defended themselves against Bosnian Serbs, a Serb had scrawled the familiar red graffito ‘This is Serbia!’ That was crossed out by a Bosniak, who declared, ‘This is Bosnia!’ Underneath, a third graffitist wrote: ‘No, you idiots, this is a post office.’” The book is replete with such illustrative and often entertaining anecdotes.

Ash’s discussions of “the assassin’s veto,” new forms of journalism, privacy, and government secrecy are especially insightful. The chapter on “Icebergs” provides a helpful tour of the Internet’s complex architecture and governance, explaining how “there are at least three ways in which some combination of private and public power produces what are arguably illegitimate restrictions that—and here’s the rub—we will find it hard to identify because they result from hidden, untransparent, nonaccountable interventions somewhere lower down.” He concludes that “on the internet, private powers are as important as public ones,” and here “money speaks, too loudly.”

Less satisfying are Ash’s discussions of pornography, a subject about which he essentially throws up his hands in despair, and to a lesser extent his discussions of Islam. There are also significant lacunae. In the chapter on religion, for example, Ash surprisingly ignores the freighted conflict over the wearing of the hijab by Muslim schoolgirls in France and skirts the broader issue of secularism or laïcité, about which historian Joan W. Scott has written a perceptive study. (Free Speech appeared before last summer’s controversy over the “burkini,” however.) More important to readers of Academe, the discussion of academic freedom is woefully inadequate, with a mere five pages on the topic mostly repeating familiar anecdotes and truisms about American institutions. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is cited, but the AAUP is ignored, as are the many serious violations of intellectual and academic freedom in other countries reported regularly by Scholars at Risk.

Still, there can be little doubt that this is an important work, deserving a broad readership. There is, to be sure, at moments an almost Pollyannaish quality to Ash’s liberalism, but he is no naive utopian. He concludes, “We need realistic idealism and idealistic realism. . . . We will never all agree, nor should we. But we must strive to create conditions in which we agree on how to disagree. At scale, in cosmopolis, that work has barely begun.” True enough, but we should thank Timothy Garton Ash for initiating that work in such a thoughtful and compelling manner.

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University–East Bay. He is first vice president of the AAUP, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and chair of the AAUP Foundation. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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