The roots of free speech are ancient, deep, and sprawling. The Athenian statesman Pericles extolled the democratic values of open debate and tolerance of social dissent in 431 BC. In the ninth century, the irreverent freethinker Ibn al-Rawandi used the fertile intellectual climate of the Abbasid caliphate to question prophecy and holy books. In 1582, the Dutchman Dirck Coornhert insisted that it was “tyrannical to . . . forbid good books in order to squelch the truth.” The first legal protection of press freedom was instituted in Sweden in 1766. In 1770, Denmark became the first state in the world to abolish any and all censorship.
Today, people in developed democracies take for granted that free speech is a fundamental right. That concept, however, would never have taken root if not for the work of trailblazers who were vilified and persecuted for ideas that many of their contemporaries considered radical and dangerous. They include the seventeenth-century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who argued that “in a free state everyone is at liberty to think as he pleases, and to say what he thinks”; the so-called Levellers of seventeenth-century England, for whom free and equal speech was a precondition for egalitarian democracy; the French feminist Olympe de Gouges, who wrote in 1791 that “a woman has the right to be guillotined; she should also have the right to debate”; and the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who saw free speech as a weapon against slavery and thought that “the right of speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed.”
If these pioneers were alive today, they would no doubt see the twenty-first century as an unprecedented golden age of free speech. They would marvel at what people in much of the world can freely and immediately discuss, across time zones and borders, with no Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) to censor blasphemy, no Star Chamber to punish sedition, no Committee of Public Safety to guillotine political heretics, and no lynch mobs to attack abolitionists. At a global level, the principle of free speech has been transformed into an international human rights norm, and its practice has been aided by advances in communications technology unimaginable to the early modern mind.
Given the epic struggles and enormous sacrifices that led to this happy outcome, there is indeed much to celebrate about the current condition of free expression. But despite the unprecedented ubiquity of speech and information today, the golden age is coming to an end. Today, we are witnessing the dawn of a free-speech recession.
According to V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), a research institute that analyzes global democracy, 2020 saw substantial declines in the respect for freedom of expression in 32 countries; in the year before that, censorship intensified in a record-breaking 37 countries. These developments had terrible consequences for the media and reporters. The Committee to Protect Journalists documented the imprisonment of 1,010 individual journalists between 2011 and 2020, an alarming 78 percent increase from the previous decade.
In some countries, the free-speech recession looks more like a depression. In India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has relied heavily on the type of colonial-era laws against sedition and enmity that the British once used to convict Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian nationalists. Modi has used those laws to silence environmental activists, politicians, journalists, academics, and minorities—in stark contrast to Gandhi’s passionate defense of free speech, which he considered “absolutely necessary for a man to breathe the oxygen of liberty.”
Today, we are witnessing the dawn of a free-speech recession.
Free speech is faring even worse in Hong Kong, where the Chinese Communist Party has completed a striking transformation of the city since cracking down on pro-democracy protests in 2019. What had been a small oasis of free expression, with a vibrant civil society and a critical press, is now a barren desert where democracy activists, academics, and independent media are punished with draconian laws against what the CCP deems terrorism, secession, or sedition.
Freedom of speech and the media have also been targeted in the EU member states of Hungary and Poland, where illiberal governments view media pluralism and minority voices as a threat rather than a strength. In both places, right-wing leaders have put in place laws aimed at ensuring de facto dominance by government-friendly media outlets and reducing the visibility of LGBTQ people.
But brutal repression in authoritarian states and creeping censorship in illiberal democracies only partly explain why free speech is in retreat. Liberal democracies, rather than constituting a counterweight to the authoritarian onslaught, are themselves contributing to the free-speech recession. In the wealthy, established democracies of Europe and North America, elites in political, academic, and media institutions that once cherished free expression as the lifeblood of democracy now worry that “free speech is killing us,” as the title of a 2019 New York Times op-ed by the writer Andrew Marantz put it. Many now point to unmediated disinformation and hateful speech on the Internet as evidence that free speech is being weaponized against democracy itself. Meanwhile, the growing strength and geopolitical clout of authoritarian and illiberal regimes have led to brutal limits on freedom of expression in many developing and middle-income countries that not long ago seemed poised to become freer, more open societies.
It is true that freedom of speech can be exploited to amplify division, sow distrust, and inflict serious harm. And the right to free expression is not absolute; laws properly prohibit threats and incitement to violence, for example. But the view that today’s fierce challenges to democratic institutions and values can be overcome by rolling back free speech is deeply misguided. Laws and norms protecting free speech still constitute “the great bulwark of liberty,” as the British essayist Thomas Gordon wrote in 1721. If not maintained, however, a bulwark can break, and without free speech, the future will be less free, democratic, and equal—and more ignorant, autocratic, and oppressive. Rather than abandon this most essential right, democracies should renew their commitment to free speech and use it to further liberal democratic ideals and counter authoritarian advances.
Europe is the laboratory where the principle of free speech was first developed and experimented with in a systematic fashion. Over time, different rulers tinkered with different combinations of freedom and restriction. So far in the twenty-first century, more restrictions than freedoms have been added to the mix.
Since 2008, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, western European countries have experienced a sharp decline in civil liberties as “infringements of free speech . . . have increased.” In recent years, both the European Commission and the governments of Austria, Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom have pursued what the German political scientist Karl Loewenstein termed “militant democracy”: the idea that democracies must deny basic democratic freedoms to those who reject basic democratic values. France has adopted a law prohibiting the online “manipulation of information” during elections. French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has also issued decrees banning the right-wing anti-immigrant organization Génération Identitaire (citing alleged hate speech) and the antidiscrimination group the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (citing what was considered the group’s defense of terrorism and anti-Semitism). Even criticizing Macron himself is risky these days. Last September, a man was fined more than $11,000 for depicting Macron as Adolf Hitler on billboards protesting France’s COVID-19 policies.
In 2020, Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, coordinated a crackdown on online hate speech in seven member countries. Among them was Germany, where police searched more than 80 houses, seizing smartphones and laptops, and questioned almost 100 suspects about hateful posts that included “insulting a female politician.”
Denmark, along with its Scandinavian neighbors, ranks as one of the world’s most open democracies, with a long tradition of tolerating even totalitarian ideas. But during the past decade, Danish governments on both the left and the right have restricted free speech by toughening libel laws, increasing the punishment for insulting public officials and politicians, instituting a de facto ban on wearing veils that fully cover one’s face in public, adopting laws punishing religious “hate preachers” at home and banning foreign ones from entering the country, expanding the scope of laws against hate speech, and presenting a draft bill requiring social media platforms to remove any illegal content within 24 hours of receiving a complaint.
A new generation of progressives want to purge ideas they deem racist, sexist, or anti-LGBTQ.
In the United States, the legal protections afforded by the First Amendment remain strong. But for many Americans, the underlying ideal of what some First Amendment scholars have termed “free speech exceptionalism” has lost its appeal. As an abstract principle, Americans continue to support free speech. In practice, however, that support frequently collapses along unforgiving tribalistic and identitarian lines. Despite American liberalism’s tenet that free speech is necessary to protect historically persecuted minorities against outbreaks of majoritarian intolerance, this civil libertarian ideal no longer persuades a new generation of progressives who want to purge an ever-broadening collection of ideas and views they deem racist, sexist, or anti-LGBTQ from universities, media outlets, and cultural institutions. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education documented more than 500 attempts between 2015 and 2021 to professionally sanction scholars for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech. Over two-thirds of the scholars targeted for speech involving race or gender faced investigations, suspension, censorship, demotion, or termination. Many of those cases stemmed from pedagogically justifiable uses of offensive language. Last year, for example, the University of Illinois law professor Jason Kilborn was suspended after a student complained about an exam question that referenced racial and misogynistic slurs—even though the exam presented only the first letter of each term, with asterisks replacing the rest of the word.
This new American skepticism of free speech is hardly consigned to the political left. As president, Donald Trump attacked the media as “the true Enemy of the people,” proposed tightening libel laws, and advocated punishing people who burn the American flag, an act protected by the First Amendment. Consequently, according to polls conducted by YouGov during Trump’s presidency, a plurality of Republicans supported giving courts the power to shut down media outlets for inaccurate or biased news stories and stripping flag burners of U.S. citizenship. Despite professing concern for free speech, conservatives have also responded to the rise of so-called identity politics and what they decry as “cancel culture” with illiberal laws prohibiting the discussion of certain conceptions of and theories about race, gender, and even history in educational settings.
On occasion, the assault on free speech has become a bipartisan affair. Several states and a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate have adopted or promoted laws punishing businesses for supporting boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements, despite federal court rulings that the right to boycott to influence political change is protected by the First Amendment. Many Democrats and Republicans have also found common ground on the idea of stripping social media platforms of the broad legal protections they enjoy when it comes to user-generated content—although the liberal and conservative justifications for that proposed step differ greatly. Democrats want to rein in disinformation and hate speech, whereas Republicans oppose Big Tech because of what they see as Silicon Valley’s anticonservative bias. But the combined force of this enmity raises serious questions about the long-term prospects for free speech in the United States.
EGALITARIAN OR ELITIST?
Perhaps nowhere has the erosion of free speech been more apparent than on the Internet. In 1999, one of the primary architects of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, described his vision of a decentralized space unfettered by the censorship of “hierarchical classification systems” imposed by others. In 2020, however, Internet freedom receded for the 11th straight year according to Freedom House, which attributed the trend to a “record-breaking crackdown on freedom of expression online.” The techno-optimist’s ideal has given way to an Internet aggressively policed by states and by corporate behemoths that carry out what some have dubbed “moderation without representation,” using opaque algorithms to define the limits of global debate with little transparency or accountability.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious that the global expansion of free speech that the Internet allows would produce harmful unintended consequences. Along with spreading truthful information and fostering tolerance, a free and open network accessible to billions of people across the world inevitably disseminates lies and amplifies hateful rhetoric. It was also predictable that authoritarian regimes whose hold on power was challenged by the Internet would invest heavily in reimposing their control of the means of communication. In the twentieth century, authoritarians and totalitarians of every stripe turned the press and broadcast media into fine-tuned instruments of propaganda at the same time as they ruthlessly censored and repressed dissent. Today, authoritarian states—with China leading the charge—are reverse engineering the technology that was supposed to make it impossible for censorship to silence dissent at home and sow division and distrust abroad. In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton famously remarked that China’s attempts to crack down on the Internet were “like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” Some 20 years later, the Jell-O is firmly attached to the wall—and a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping hangs on the nail.
History should have made clear that radical developments in communications technology would not entice elites and gatekeepers to willingly give up their privileges and admit previously voiceless groups into the public sphere. New communications technology is inevitably disruptive. Every new advancement—from the printing press to the Internet—has been opposed by those whose institutional authority is vulnerable to being undermined by sudden change. In 1525, the great humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, himself a prodigious writer, complained that printers “fill the world with pamphlets and books [that are] foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive.” In 1858, The New York Times lamented that communication via transatlantic telegraph was “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.” In 2006, Barack Obama, then a Democratic senator from Illinois, praised the Internet as “a neutral platform” that allowed him to “say what I want without censorship.” Social media would later play an important role in his rise to the presidency. But 14 years later, after the presidential election of 2020, Obama declared online disinformation “the single biggest threat to our democracy.”
The fundamental disagreement about free speech among democrats in the digital age can be boiled down to two opposing understandings. An egalitarian conception of free speech stresses the importance of providing everyone with a voice in public affairs regardless of status or education. An elitist conception, on the other hand, prefers a public sphere mediated by institutional gatekeepers who can ensure the “responsible” diffusion of information and opinion. The clash between these two perspectives stretches back to antiquity and originated in the differences between Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism. In Athens, ordinary free male citizens enjoyed a direct voice in political decision-making and the right to speak frankly in public (the fate of Socrates notwithstanding). Rome, in contrast, limited free speech to a small elite; others had to tread carefully, lest they run afoul of laws against licentiousness, which could lead to banishment or execution.
THE DIGITAL CITY
The tension between these egalitarian and elitist ideals has dominated the history of free speech ever since, even as the mediums have changed and technology has advanced. Outbreaks of elite panic often reflect real concerns and dilemmas but often result in policies that are likely to worsen the problems they were intended to solve. Take Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which was put into effect in 2017 and obliges social media platforms to remove illegal content or face huge fines. The law has done little to check hatred online but has incentivized Big Tech platforms to expand their definitions of prohibited speech and extremism and turbocharge their automated content moderation—resulting in the deletion of massive amounts of content that was perfectly legal.
The law’s most discernible impact, however, may have been to serve as a blueprint for Internet censorship, providing a veneer of legitimacy to authoritarian regimes around the globe that have explicitly cited the German law as an inspiration for their own censorship laws. The law was a good faith effort to curb online hate speech but has helped spark a regulatory race to the bottom that undermines freedom of expression as guaranteed by international human rights standards. Although it would be misleading to blame Germany for the draconian laws adopted in authoritarian states, those countries’ embrace of restrictions resembling NetzDG should give Germany and other Western democracies pause.
The importance of free speech in the digital space is clear to embattled pro-democracy activists in places such as Belarus, Egypt, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Russia, and Venezuela, where they depend on the ability to communicate and organize—and to the regimes of these countries, which view such activities as an existential threat. And when liberal democracies pass censorship laws or when Big Tech platforms prohibit certain kinds of speech or bar certain users, they make it easier for authoritarian regimes to justify their repression of dissent. In this way, democracies and the companies that thrive in them sometimes unwittingly help entrench regimes that fuel propaganda and disinformation in those very same democracies.
Societies that depend on the centralized control of information will be neither free nor vibrant.
These conflicting dynamics are playing out in a context in which there is no clear legitimate authority, shared values, or principles on which to build a global framework for free speech. This reflects a much deeper and fundamental disconnect between what the philosopher of technology L. M. Sacasas has called “the Digital City,” where we live our hyperconnected lives in the Internet era, and “the Analog City,” where life took place in the industrial era, prior to mass digitization. Modern humans increasingly inhabit the former while trying to make sense of its unprecedented informational order according to the principles and assumptions of the latter. The result has been a tendency toward a fragmentation of the public sphere, with plummeting trust in established sources of information and political institutions.
The disruptive effects of switching from the Analog City to the Digital City are unlikely to run their course anytime soon. The printing press had been around for 70 years before it caught on and helped launch the Protestant Reformation. In comparison, the World Wide Web has been around for only 30 years or so, and Google, Facebook, and Twitter were founded in 1998, 2004, and 2006, respectively. These may well be just the early days of the digital age, with massive disruptions still to come.
Over the past two years, a torrent of lies and conspiracy theories have taken a toll. They have made it harder to contain a deadly pandemic. And they led millions to reject the legitimacy of a presidential election in the world’s most powerful democracy, culminating in the first violent attack on the peaceful transfer of power ever witnessed in the United States. If these pathologies are but a harbinger of things to come in the Digital City, no wonder many still cling to the relative certainty and informational structure of the Analog City. It might be tempting to simply condemn huge swaths of cyberspace as irreparably corrupt and close them off, much as the Ottoman emperors in the sixteenth century shunned the printing press in a bid to avoid the political chaos and religious conflict that had unsettled Europe in part because of changes ushered in by the freer spread of information. That choice might have seemed prudent at the time; now, however, it looks like a costly miscalculation, as the compound knowledge and ideas spread by the printing press eventually helped Europe lay the foundation for global dominance, even as religious wars were raging across the continent. Modern democracies are unlikely to err so badly. But when Macron insists that in democracies, the “Internet is much better used by those on the extremes,” and when Obama cautions that online disinformation poses “the single biggest threat” to democracy, they are inflating the threat and courting overreaction.
There is no denying that the backlash against social media has had consequences. Facebook and Twitter originally displayed a strong civil libertarian impulse inspired by First Amendment ideals. As late as 2012, Twitter only half-jokingly described itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” But as the scrutiny grew more intense and the calls for more content removal and regulation grew ever louder, the platforms changed their tune and started emphasizing the values of “safety” and preventing “harm.” In a 2017 hearing before a hostile British Parliament, a Twitter vice president waved the white flag and announced that the platform was ditching its “John Stuart Mill–style philosophy.” And in 2019, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, called for stronger regulation of the Internet, knowing full well that few other platforms would be able to spend as many resources on content moderation as Facebook does.
In recent years, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have altered their terms of service in ways that have led to the banning of more content and broader categories of speech. Facebook deleted 26.9 million pieces of content for allegedly violating its standards on hate speech in the last quarter of 2020. That is nearly 17 times the 1.6 million deletions of alleged hate speech in the last quarter of 2017. Twitter and YouTube also removed record levels of content in 2020. Those caught in the dragnet are not all neo-Nazis or violent jihadis; others whose content has been purged include activists documenting war crimes in Syria, racial and sexual minorities using slurs to expose bigotry, and Russians critical of President Vladimir Putin. No government in history has ever been able to exert such extensive control over what people all over the world are saying, writing, reading, watching, listening to, and sharing with others.
Ultimately, any society that becomes dependent on the centralized control of information and opinion will be neither free nor vibrant. Past attempts to rid the public sphere of ideas that authorities or elites considered extreme or harmful have tended to exclude the poor and the propertyless, foreigners, women, and religious, racial, ethnic, national, and sexual minorities. Until relatively recently in historical terms, those in power have deemed people in these categories too credulous, fickle, immoral, ignorant, or dangerous to have a voice in public affairs.
Liberal democracies must come to terms with the fact that in the Digital City, citizens and institutions cannot be shielded from hostile propaganda, hateful content, or disinformation without compromising their egalitarian and liberal values. Whatever fundamental reforms governments must pursue to ensure that humans can thrive, trust one another, and flourish in the Digital City, a robust commitment to free speech should be recognized as a necessary part of the solution rather than an outdated ideal to be discarded.
THE POWER OF SPEECH
Rather than trying to save democracy by sacrificing free speech, democracies must rediscover its enormous potential. Recent history provides both inspiration for how they can do so and stark warnings about the dangers of letting authoritarian states win the fight on where to draw redlines. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were negotiated at the UN in the years following World War II, liberal democracies and the Soviet bloc fought bitterly about the limits of free speech. The Soviets sought to include an obligation to ban hate speech in accordance with Article 123 of Joseph Stalin’s 1936 constitution, which prohibited any “advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt.”
In the face of this pressure, Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of what was then the UN Commission on Human Rights, emerged as an eloquent defender of free-speech maximalism. She warned that the Soviet proposals “would be extremely dangerous” and were likely to be “exploited by totalitarian States.” Democracies managed to defeat hate-speech bans in the UDHR, but ultimately, the Soviet agenda won the day: Article 20 of the ICCPR obliges states to prohibit specific forms of incitement to hatred. Predictably, Soviet-backed communist states used laws against hate speech and incitement as part of their arsenal against dissent and political enemies at home, a tactic still in use by authoritarian states. But the initial fight at the UN over the limits of free speech in international human rights law was only the first of several rounds that would be fought over the coming decades.
In 1975, the Helsinki Final Act was signed by 35 countries under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The act’s primary ambition was to ease Cold War tensions, but Western democracies persuaded the Soviet bloc to accept the inclusion of human rights provisions. The communist regimes objected to the human rights language during the lengthy negotiations. They were already fighting an uphill battle to jam the radio signals of Western radio stations that broadcast uncensored news into the homes of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. In 1972, using rhetoric eerily similar to that now used by many democratic leaders, Soviet officials had declared that they would never tolerate “the dissemination of . . . racism, fascism, the cult of violence, hostility among peoples and false slanderous propaganda.” Nevertheless, the Soviet bloc swallowed the human rights concessions, which they viewed as little more than empty rhetoric.
Instead of sacrificing free speech, democracies must rediscover its enormous potential.
But through newspaper reports, word of mouth, samizdat publications, and Western radio broadcasts, people in Eastern Europe quickly learned about the new rights that their governments had solemnly promised to respect. And among the rights guaranteed by the Helsinki Final Act, perhaps none was more important than freedom of expression. The principle and practice of free speech were used by Western democracies and burgeoning human rights organizations to empower and amplify the protests of Soviet-bloc dissidents. The famous Charter 77 manifesto, authored in 1977 by an eclectic mix of Czechoslovak dissidents—including Vaclav Havel, the country’s future leader—complained that “the right to freedom of expression, for example, guaranteed by Article 19 of the ICCPR, is in our case purely illusory.” In 1990, after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Havel, who had become president, gave a triumphant speech to the U.S. Congress:
When [Communist authorities] arrested me . . . , I was living in a country ruled by the most conservative communist government in Europe, and our society slumbered beneath the pall of a totalitarian system. Today, less than four months later, I’m speaking to you as the representative of a country that has set out on the road to democracy, a country where there is complete freedom of speech.
Likewise, Lech Walesa, the trade union leader who went on to serve as the president of Poland in the post–Cold War period, recalled that in his successful struggle to topple communism, “one of the central freedoms at stake was freedom of expression.” Walesa noted that “without this basic freedom, human life becomes meaningless; and once the truth of this hit me, it became part of my whole way of thinking.”
Later, free speech also contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa, where censorship and repression had been used to maintain white supremacy. In 1994, shortly before winning the country’s first free presidential election, Nelson Mandela gave a speech in which he credited the international media for shining a global spotlight on the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime. He then promised to abolish apartheid-era laws limiting free expression, a right that he pledged would constitute one of the “core values” of South African democracy.
More recently, in 2011, the Obama administration notched a rare but important win amid the current era’s free-speech recession. For more than a decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation had mobilized majorities at the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council to support resolutions against “the defamation of religion.” The OIC’s campaign was an attempt to pass a legally binding ban on religious blasphemy at the UN—a step that would have effectively extended the writ of regimes in Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia that severely punish satire, criticism, and irreverent discussions of Islam. In response, the United States, with assistance from a number of European democracies, launched a multilateral global offensive to stop the OIC’s effort. The strategy worked and not only defended but also expanded existing free-speech norms, leading to the adoption of a resolution that affirmed that human rights law protects people, not religions or ideologies. Although the resolution condemned advocacy of incitement to hatred, it called on the criminalization only of “incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.” Moreover, the resolution helped remedy the original sin of international human rights law by narrowing the obligation to prohibit incitement to hatred inserted in the ICCPR at the behest of the Soviet Union back in the 1960s.
THE TALKING CURE
These precedents provide democracies with a guide for how to promote the fundamental value of free speech. Instead of launching global initiatives limiting that freedom, democracies should join forces to expand the shrinking spaces for dissent and civil society around the globe. One way to do so is through concerted efforts to expose and condemn censorship and repression and to offer civil society organizations and dissidents technical support that can amplify dissent and circumvent repressive measures. Democracies must be vigilant about protecting norms within international institutions and preventing authoritarian states from taking advantage of elite panic to dilute hard-won speech protections.
Democracies should also push for global Big Tech platforms to voluntarily adopt robust human rights standards to help guide and inform their content moderation policies and practices. This would solidify the sprawling and ever-changing terms of service that previously set the bar significantly lower than what follows from human rights norms and constitutional freedoms in liberal democracies. Such a move would also help online platforms resist the pressure to act as privately outsourced censors of dissent in countries where social media may be the only way for citizens to circumvent official censorship and propaganda.
In addition to direct government action, civil society and technology companies can also contribute to the promotion and protection of free speech. A cottage industry has sprung up to map, analyze, and counter disinformation and propaganda—a far healthier approach than attempts to ban harmful speech. Likewise, several studies suggest that organized campaigns of strategic “counterspeech” can provide an antidote to online hate speech, which frequently targets minority groups. For example, the Swedish online community #jagärhär (#iamhere) has tens of thousands of members who respond to hateful posts on social media—an approach that has been copied by groups in many other countries.
Innovative journalists, activists, and collectives such as Bellingcat are also using open-source intelligence and data to expose the criminal deeds and human rights violations of authoritarian states. Not even China can avoid such scrutiny: unlike the suffering of victims in the Soviet Union’s gulag, to which the world was mostly oblivious, the horrific conditions in China’s network of “reeducation camps” in the western region of Xinjiang have been exposed by journalists, activists, and victims using smartphones, social media, satellites, and messaging apps.
The free-speech recession must be resisted by people around the world who have benefited from the revolutionary acts and sacrifices of the millions who came before them and fought for the cherished right to speak one’s mind. It is up to those who already enjoy that right to defend the tolerance of heretical ideas, limit the reach of disinformation, agree to disagree without resorting to harassment or hate, and treat free speech as a principle to be upheld universally rather than a prop to be selectively invoked for narrow, tribalistic point-scoring. As George Orwell put it in 1945: “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” Free speech is still an experiment, and in the digital age, no one can guarantee the outcome of providing global platforms to billions of people. But the experiment is noble—and worth continuing.
JACOB MCHANGAMA is Founder and Director of Justitia, a Copenhagen-based think tank that focuses on human rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. He is the author of Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media (Basic Books, 2022), from which this essay is adapted.