Richard Nisley

History - World Released - Sep 21, 2019

This book is a labor of love. The author, Timothy Garton Ash, a self-described “liberal internationalist,” spent several years writing and researching it. The result is a penetrating and exhaustive analysis of free speech, written for what he calls the “cosmopolis”—today’s “global city”, united by the internet (as opposed to McLuhan’s “global village”, united by Gutenberg’s printing press).

Ash offers ten principles that are distilled formulations of a modern liberal position on free speech. Says the author: “They have been extensively discussed with experts, and with anyone open to such a discussion, online and in person, from Oxford to Beijing and Cairo to Yangon, and then revised in the light of those debates. . . . I believe these precepts are as close to right as I can make them.”

Much has been written about free speech. The author quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Stuart Mill, John Milton, and George Orwell, among several notables on the subject. Here are a few phrases that caught my eye: free speech is a search engine for truth; freedom of speech is the lifeblood of democracy; free speech is the freedom to connect; free speech “tests our ability to live in a society that is necessarily defined by conflict and controversy; it trains us in the art of tolerance and steels us for its vicissitudes”; and (as Americans), “the freedom to express oneself is our preeminent constitutional value and a defining national trait.”

Free speech—true free speech, as enjoyed by Western liberal democracies—has not been around all that long, perhaps 200 years. Today, about half of the planet enjoys free speech, while the other half does not. China and North Korea are two prime examples where free speech is prohibited. “The struggle for word power is also a struggle for world power,” says the author. Later on, he writes: “It is important to remember that through much of the history of the West, both paternalism and moralism played a huge role in limiting free speech—and in much of the world they still do. The attitude of many authoritarian regimes, and all totalitarian ones, is quintessentially paternalistic. The state says to its citizens: "We know best what is best for you." In other words, the leaders of these regimes treat their citizens like children. In a democracy, where free speech and the rule of law prevails, the people are treated like adults.

Ash’s ten principles of free speech are as follows, each with a brief explanation I pulled from the text: (1) Lifeblood: Freedom of expression is not merely one among many freedoms; it is the one upon which all others depend; (2) Violence: Lift the fear of violence—except as legitimately exercised by a rule-of-law state—and all other limits on free speech . . . can themselves be freely debated; (3) Knowledge: One of the strongest arguments for freedom of expression is that it helps us seek the truth; (4) Journalism: We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life; (5) Diversity: Toleration makes difference possible, difference makes toleration necessary; (6) Religion: The faiths of others all deserve to be honored for one reason or another. By honoring them, one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others; (7) Privacy: We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs to our reputations, but not prevent the 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 power; (10) Courage: We decide for ourselves and face the consequences. The truly sovereign state will build its own sovereignty on that of each and every citizen.

Professor Ash is a very good writer and passionate about his subject. His book is unique. He can be tedious at times—he examines every issue in detail, and provides example after example to support his view—but he is never less than eloquent, never less than informative, never less than fully committed to his subject. Ash is the strongest of advocates for the dignity and freedom of man, and that alone makes his book important, worthwhile, and necessary.

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