June 2018

Libertarians tend to admire the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; its protections on the freedoms of speech and the press are generally far more extensive than those found in other countries. Yet the world is becoming smaller and more connected all the time. American multinational corporations are commonly subject to competing rules about free expression in other parts of the world — and yet these same corporations supply the social media venues where many of us prefer to exercise our First Amendment rights. How durable a guarantee does American law supply in our interconnected age? Are we in danger of seeing countries with more restrictive speech regimes gradually erode the freedoms of the free world, and particularly those of the United States? Or does the newly global conversation demand a set of global rules? Do those who seek to limit hate speech have a point after all, particularly online?

For our look at the international dimensions of free speech activism, we’ve invited Danish lawyer and activist Jacob Mchangama to write the lead essay. Responding to him will be Dr. Anthony Leaker of the University of Brighton, Professor Jeremy Waldron of New York University, and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution.

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Lead Essay

  • Jacob Mchangama describes what he terms a “cross-fertilization of censorship,” in which regimes both free and unfree are in the process of copying one another’s restrictions on expressive freedoms. More liberal countries still frequently restrict hate speech, while less liberal ones use those restrictions to justify still more restrictive acts. The world’s centuries-long march toward freedom of expression seems to have halted. Can it be restarted?

Response Essays

  • Anthony Leaker characterizes the recent free speech “crisis” as mythical. It is the product of far-right and indeed fascist propaganda, and we can know that this is so by observing the purported victims in the “crisis:” They are right-wing, successful, and absolutely not being persecuted. Indeed, they dictate the terms of present-day debate, exactly as people like them have always done. In this way, Leaker denies that the United States has been, or is, a force for liberty at all. Political speech does well when it liberates the oppressed, but the type of speech under discussion here is nothing of the kind.

  • Is free speech in danger? Jeremy Waldron sounds a skeptical note, and he offers a series of challenging methodological questions regarding how to think about free speech and public policy. Among others, he urges that we pay more attention to the difficult problems of cross-country comparisons and the interaction between law and private social sanction.

  • Jonathan Rauch urges a reconsideration of what social media are: Rather than neutral conduits for the ideas of others, social media platforms should be thought of as publishers in their own right. Everyone in the publishing industry knows the value of an editor, who helps to weed out low-value content. But the law has relatively little to offer the editing process, and politicians today seem increasingly determined to erode not only free speech norms, but other norms of democracy as well.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Cato Unbound: Is Social Media Broken?” December 2017

Cato Unbound:Free Speech on College Campuses,” January 2016

Policy Forum: What Europe Can Teach the United States about Free Speech,” April 18, with Jacob Mchangama

Book Forum: The Tyranny of Silence, with Fleming Rose and Jonathan Rauch, November 13, 2014