Free Speech, Its Primacy and Challenges



Freedom of Expression, Islamophobia and Antisemitism

Gilbert Achcar

Freedom of expression has been confronted in recent times with two notorious tests: one related to religious offense and the second to political offense, the offenders being accused of racism in both cases. The first case is that of the affairs created by cartoons claiming to depict the Prophet Muhammad. The second is the controversy about the relation between antisemitism and writings or actions hostile to Zionism or to Israel. This presentation will reflect critically on these two tests and the lessons to be drawn from them.


Caricaturing the Prophet: Possible Responses from within the Islamic Tradition

Masooda Bano

The talk will approach the issue by looking at the pluralistic responses possible from within the Islamic tradition to deal with ‘the hurt’ Muslims feel when Muhammad is represented through cartoons. It will particularly explore if the Islamic scholarly tradition allows for violent responses, such as witnessed in the case of Charlie Hebdo, and if not then what explains such reactions.


Speech, Identity and Boundaries in Age of Social Media

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

This talk will ask the following question. Are the premises that sustain the liberal defense of free speech, called into question by the way in which discourse functions in an age of social media. In particular, the space for free speech has often been premised on a sense of boundaries, for instance, between self regarding and other regarding actions, between public and private, or the ability to delineate the context for speech. Does the fact the specification of these boundaries has become more difficult in the age of social media, make conventional ways of thinking about speech more difficult?


Offence or Hate?: The Limits of Free Speech under the Indian Constitution

Gautam Bhatia

India’s diverse and plural democracy, home to multiple faiths, creeds, and other intersecting identities, is no stranger to free speech controversies. Over the years, the Indian public, lawmakers, and courts, have grappled with issues from obscenity to film censorship, and from defamation to contempt of court. One of the most pressing contemporary issues, however, is that of hate speech. Indian laws do not define hate speech, although they do proscribe creating enmity between “classes” of citizens. The issue is further muddied by the fact that Indian speech laws are often weaponised by individuals or groups claiming that their sentiments have been hurt, or that they have been offended, by a speech, a book, or a film. This talk will aim to craft an understanding of hate speech that reflects contemporary Indian social reality, and is consistent with the principles of liberal democracy.


Freedom of Speech: A Relational Defence

Matteo Bonotti & Jonathan Seglow

Much of the recent literature on freedom of speech has focused on the arguments for and against the regulation of certain kinds of speech. Discussions of hate speech and offensive speech, for example, abound in the literature, as do debates concerning the legal permissibility of pornography. Less attention has been paid, however to the analysis of the normative foundations of freedom of speech, even though the question of why free speech matters is implicated in the question of when it’s permissible to regulate it. In this paper we make a fresh start on the difficult task of rethinking the foundations of free speech. We begin by reviewing the classic arguments for free speech founded on the values of truth, autonomy and democracy.  We find that they tend to be under- or over-inclusive, failing to protect valuable forms of speech which merit stringent protection or protecting speech which is not special.  Moreover, they leave us balancing free speech against other normative considerations. Our argument is that free speech is a relational liberty: it connects a speaker and a receiver of speech, and this relation is valuable in two ways. When our speech receives uptake from others, that serves our interest in being recognised as individuals with our own perspective on the world. Where speech answers our need for recognition, it is valuable; where it doesn’t, there is a case for regulation. Second, speech enables us have a voice and contest prevailing social arrangements. Drawing on the insights of republican political theory, we argue that speech (and other liberties) conceptualised this way must be co-exercisable: each person’s exercise of their right to free speech must be consistent with others exercising the right too. This serves the republican ideal of non-domination, where free speech and other basic liberties ensure that no person is able arbitrarily to interfere in the interests of another. Together, recognition theory and republicanism overcome the issues of balance and of protection for the right kinds of speech. We consider various objections to our relational view, in particular the idea that there is no right to have one’s speech attended to by others. We then apply the view to some free speech controversies such as hate speech and pornography to show its fecundity in practice. We conclude by highlighting the advantages of thinking about free speech in this way.


A Confucian Case for Moderate Free Expression

David Elstein 

Particularly given the repression of political speech in the PRC, the question of free expression in Chinese thought deserves attention. Traditional Confucian sources indeed show a great deal of concern about unrestricted expression. However, there is another Confucian value which does imply, though not logically entail, a need for broad protections for speech about ideas. I make a case that Confucianism appreciates the need for a kind of autonomy in choosing values that I call reflective commitment. Confucian reflective commitment is able to ground free expression of ethical and political views. Expression that is not mainly propositional (such as art) or does not argue for a position on values is a different question, and here Confucians will generally accept more restrictions than liberals.


Is Europe losing free speech?

Timothy Garton Ash

Free speech in Europe is under attack from multiple directions. From the ‘assassin’s veto’ of Islamist terrorists, most recently seen in the murder of Samuel Paty. From Chinese and Russian disinformation. From overzealous governments, also closing down independent media, as in Hungary and Poland. From pressures for ‘no platforming’ speakers, and many other quarters. Is Europe still the continent of free speech?


Freedom of Speech in Contemporary Arab Societies, From a Gender Perspective

Amel Grami

Women and girls in contemporary Arab societies suffer from various and intersecting forms of discrimination that deny them their enjoyment of fundamental human rights. The right to freedom of expression is one of the essential areas that may expose this gender-based discrimination, inequality, and patriarchal attitudes. In many contexts, freedom of expression has enabled women to speak out and organize in civil, political, social, economic and cultural spheres and contexts, participate in their own emancipation and improve their status. Women’s exercise of freedom of expression has also provided them with new rights such as the right to vote, the right to control their own bodies, the right to join unions, the right to equality before the law and to participate in decision-making and hold governments to account.

In the last decade, we have witnessed different attacks on women’s rights particularly their right to the freedom of expression, as scholars, journalists, social media users, human rights defenders, politicians and activists.

The aim of this presentation is to explore emerging challenges and to highlight the struggle of Arab women for freedom of expression.


The Freedom of Thought and the Politics of Thought in the Arab World

Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab

This paper sheds light on the politics of writing the history of modern and contemporary Arab thought, by showing the stakes involved in this writing, for instance in Syria and Egypt. Defining this history has been one way of resisting repression and indoctrination. It has been one way of practicing freedom of thought in settings of state ideology and state terror. Choosing freely and stating one’s intellectual legacy has been in such settings acts of defiance and acts of political resistance. It has also been a bone of contention between different oppositional currents such as the Islamist and the non-Islamist. Indeed the repression of liberties has given intellectual history in these contexts a particular political significance that I wish to highlight and discuss.


Freedom of Expression as Self-Restraint

Matthew Kramer

This talk will first specify what the absoluteness of a moral principle consists in, and will then present the principle of freedom of expression as an absolute moral prohibition on the outlawing of any communicative conduct that is not constitutive of serious communication-independent wrongdoing.  The talk will define the notion of communication-independence quite precisely, and will maintain that the principle of freedom of expression requires four main types of neutrality between any system of governance and the communicative conduct of individuals or organizations.


Lost in the Marketplace of Ideas: Rethinking Free Speech After Trump

Stephen Macedo

At the end of a recent blog post summarizing their recent book, The New Conspiracism, Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum argue that  “the most effective antidote” to “conspiracism’s degradation of democracy… is the common sense of the people.”  But common sense, they allow “needs fortification from a public culture where knowledge is acknowledged and nourished, and where one does not mistake one’s opponents for enemies.”  So what exactly should we do?  Promote more virtuous leadership and civic education for the masses?  Yes, certainly, but what else?

Social scientists are better at analyzing problems than proposing solutions, but constitutional repair is what we need to think about, including as concerns the state of our public media environment.  For decades, newspapers and other traditional forms of journalism have seen steep decline.  Technology giants like Google and Facebook are far more than communications intermediaries: they are the “gatekeepers of free expression.”  Witness the awesome spectacle of Twitter’s permanent banning of Donald Trump in the wake of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol.  A worthy goal for the “elected branches,” says media scholar Tim Wu in a 2019 essay, would be “to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950’s.”[1]  Assuming that that would be an improvement – which Wu himself seems uncertain about — how exactly is that to be done, given today’s extreme partisan polarization?

I take up some of these issues in a preliminary way.


Regulating Free Speech

Bhikhu Parekh

When a society subscribes to a plurality of values, as almost every society does, each value limits the others and we have to strike a balance. No value can be absolute and none altogether devoid of significance. Free speech is no different. It is the basis of a vibrant and self-critical society. But it is also subject to other values such as public order, social harmony and respect for human dignity. A balance needs to be struck, and that is done differently in different societies and historical contexts.


Constructing Women: Free speech, Gender and Religion

Debora Spini

The interaction between free speech and gender justice may reveal itself as quite controversial, as it may generate conflicts between a right to the free expression of opinion and claims for  recognition, respect and dignity. The religious dimension of individual and collective identity intersects with this conversation. In this framework, the  Islamophobic representation of Muslim women provides a sort of crossroad of many of the contradictions and challenges facing democratic public spaces.


Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception

Cass Sunstein

The talk tackles the fundamental question of how we can deter lies while also protecting freedom of speech. To be sure, we cannot eliminate lying, nor should we try to do so. Free societies must generally allow falsehoods and lies, which cannot and should not be excised from democratic debate. A main reason is that we cannot trust governments to make unbiased judgments about what counts as “fake news.” However, governments should have the power to regulate specific kinds of falsehoods: those that genuinely endanger health, safety, and the capacity of the public to govern itself. Private institutions, such as Facebook and Twitter, have a great deal of room to stop the spread of falsehoods, and they should be exercising their authority far more than they are now doing. We are allowing far too many lies, including those that both threaten public health and undermine the foundations of democracy itself.


Banishing the Poets: Reflections on Free Speech and Literary Censorship in Vietnam

Richard Quang-Anh Tran

Sober debates on “free” speech often center not on the principle of free speech absolutism, understood as the unfettered license of expression, but the more difficult question of where to draw the line. This is so even in Western liberal democracies. This presentation looks at the problem of free speech in relation to case studies of literary censorship in Hanoi since the middle of the twentieth-century. It asks the following questions: What led to the censorship of some Vietnamese writers? What underlying principle, if any, connects these cases in illuminating the state’s conception of the relationship between literature and speech? What translations must be undertaken to understand the measured exercise of the free speech principle in its Vietnamese cultural and political context? Finally, what philosophical arguments might, then, be appropriately useful in support of a normative proposition favoring the liberty of literary and artistic expression in Vietnam?


How Absolute is Mill’s Principle of “Absolute Freedom of Opinion and Sentiment on All Subjects, Practical or Speculative, Scientific, Moral or Theological”?

Nadia Urbinati

What is the scope of free speech? What things are we free to express? What is the difference, if any, between speech that leads to actions from expressive acts or and acts that might also be expressive like a speech?”


Faking News, Hiding Data: New Assaults on the Freedom of Speech in India 

Ananya Vajpeyi

The Modi government has consistently misused existing laws and crafted new ones to restrict freedom of speech and choke the flow of information in India. It has silenced critics through intimidation, surveillance, arrest and incarceration in the name of national security, accusing all dissenters of being “anti-nationals” or even labeling them as “terrorists”. The latest assault on free speech, fundamental rights, civil liberties and democratic disagreement comes in the form of the manipulation, suppression and concealment of scientific, medical and epidemiological data in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. With the government refusing to let doctors, patients and policy-makers know the true facts and figures of mutation, transmission, mortality, recovery and vaccination, India has fallen prey to a catastrophic second wave of infections since April 2021, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens sick or dying, and the country’s public health infrastructure entirely unable to cope. We will look at how the freedom to access official data is fast emerging as a vital component of the politics of free speech in Modi’s India.


Freedom, in General, and Academic Freedom. A French Perspective

Michel Wieviorka

How s it possible that a democratic country such as France accepts reduction in freedom, in general, and more particularly could consider it useful within Universities ? Isn’t it connected with important terrorist attacks, since 2012, and with the contemporary pandemy ? With the rise of populism and nationalism? The lure of neo-maccarthysm is real too in this country, with the participation of political actors, on the one hand, and some public intellectuals on the other hand.


Academic freedom and the political economy of knowledge production: a view on/of/from China

Sophia Woodman & Tim Pringle

In this article, we examine academic freedom in China in the context of the internationalisation of higher education. Specifically, we analyse how academic freedom is affected by contradictions and tensions within an increasingly marketized global political economy of knowledge production and dissemination. Having entered the global competition for hegemony in the ‘knowledge/digital economy’, the Chinese authorities signalled an acceptance of the general ‘rules of the game’, even though these rules may appear to undermine the impetus for domestic political control. Notable among these rules are protections for academic freedom in human rights treaties ratified by China. Global (as opposed to national) rankings of universities were initiated by China, which seeks to develop globally competitive universities and is recruiting growing numbers of international students and faculty, as well as promoting academic mobility. Likewise, China has created space for marketized HE institutions and increasingly collaborates with global commercial publishing platforms, while academics in Chinese universities are under growing pressure to publish in globally ranked journals. At the same time, Chinese authorities nurture national policies on higher education investment and protection of domestic firms from global competition. The exclusion of US-dominated tech platforms combines with the Great Firewall to prioritize the circulation of ‘national knowledge’, political, academic and technical, as well as to promote the development of domestic know-how and industries. The form of dynamic authoritarianism pursued under the rule of Xi Jinping has exacerbated the tensions inherent in these differing imperatives. The Xi era has witnessed declines in university autonomy; growing content-related restrictions in teaching, research and publishing including extending these to global firms; and increased distrust of research collaborations with ‘foreigners’. Thus, the environment for academic freedom is complex, contested, and far from risk-free for academics and students in China who promote it. There is already clear evidence that the outcomes of this contestation have transnational impacts that affect HE internationalisation beyond China.



[1] Tim Wu, “Is the First Amendment Obsolete?” in Bolinger and Stone, Free Speech Century, 290.



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