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The 10 Principles for Free Speech

You have a right to voice an opinion without censorship or punishment.


In a new Radio 4 series Free Speech, Timothy Garton Ash - Professor of European Studies, University of Oxford - takes a look at how this is interpreted and exercised.

Timothy Garton Ash
How we shape and defend free speech will decide the future of free societies

Free speech is one of the hottest issues of our time. We live in a world where we are all becoming neighbours. Many of our cities are now inhabited by people from everywhere, and if you don't meet them in person, you will find them online, where in principle everyone can see what everyone else is saying.

What should we be free to express, about ourselves, other people and their religions? Should newspapers be allowed to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Does the struggle against terrorism justify the government reading your emails? Between Facebook and the NSA, do we have any privacy left?

How we shape and defend free speech will decide the future of free societies – and of those that are currently not free, if they win more of it. That's why I have spent the last ten years writing a book about free speech, creating an Oxford University a website for people to debate the subject in 13 languages – and now presenting some of my findings in a series on BBC Radio 4.

After extensive discussions with people from all parts of the world, all political persuasions, all faiths and none, I've come up with ten basic principles for free speech in our new world of neighbours. Here they are:

1. Lifeblood

We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.

2. Violence

We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.

3. Knowledge

We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge.

4. Journalism

We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.

5. Diversity

We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

6. Religion

We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.

7. Privacy

We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent 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 powers.

10. Courage

We decide for ourselves and face the consequences.

Those are just the basic principles. Of course you have to test them against real-life examples: what about the man who posted the 'Innocence of Muslims' video on YouTube? And Edward Snowden? Intrusive photographs of Kate Middleton? Incitement to violence in Kenya? Internet censorship in China? I don't for a moment imagine I've got all the answers, but free speech on the internet means we can start working on them together. If we're to live together well in this world of neighbours, that's what we need to do. And soon.

Timothy Garton Ash is the author of Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.
Discover more about the Free Speech Debate.