“The Fate of Freedom of Expression in Liberal Democracies,” held at Wellesley College in October 2015, brought together scholars, public intellectuals, journalists, and editors from across the world to discuss matters related to free expression in the West. FIRE was there to cover the action at the event, organized by Wellesley College Professor Thomas Cushman and Danish human-rights advocate Jacob Mchangama.
“I think we’re both concerned about the fate of freedom of expression in liberal democracies,” Mchangama said. “It has its origins in the West and supposedly this is where it should be protected the strongest.” But it’s not, Mchangama said, noting a recent rise in censorship across Western Europe. (The Washington Post covered an example of this trend just last week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel signalled she would allow the prosecution of a German comedian to improve relations with Turkey.)
Several prominent international free speech advocates were on hand to present at the conference. Danish journalist Flemming Rose, the foreign affairs editor at Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and the man behind the 2006 publication of the Muhammad cartoons, gave a lecture on “Free Speech and a New European Narrative.” His lecture described the fallout from his paper’s controversy and how it points to a new era in censorship for European journalism. The PEN American Center’s Suzanne Nossel discussed “The Threat to Freedom of Speech from Non-State Actors.” And FIRE’s executive director, Robert Shibley, discussed themes of censorship on American college campuses from the influential article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” co-authored by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff in The Atlantic in September 2015.
Shibley said the conference highlighted the universality of contemporary challenges to free speech.
“It’s helpful for people from all over to get together and talk about the similarities and differences in the things that they’re dealing with,” he said. “I’ve actually been surprised at how many similarities there have been.”
Issues related to FIRE’s mission were discussed throughout the conference.
“This idea that if you have a more diverse population, you should have less diversity in speech, it’s the other way around,” said Thomas Cushman, the conference organizer, in an interview with FIRE staff. “Students need to be taught that diversity in speech is an accompaniment and actually a bulwark for successful diversity and tolerance.”