Historian launches project to debate free speech

A research project which invites people to debate global free speech in the internet age is being launched at Oxford University today (19 January 2012).

Free Speech Debate, which is led by Professor of European Studies Timothy Garton Ash, aims to encourage people around the world to think about and discuss the opportunities and limits of free expression - on a dedicated website. The day after English-language Wikipedia was blacked out in protest at planned US restrictions on internet freedom, the launch will feature Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in conversation with Timothy Garton Ash. It is being streamed live on the Free Speech Debate website at 5pm on Thursday 19 January.

Ten draft principles for global free expression are laid out on the website, together with explanations, expert analyses and case studies which it is hoped will generate trans-cultural debate. A research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony’s College, Free Speech Debate involves a team of more than thirty graduate students and researchers at Oxford University, studying freedom of expression in different parts of the world. It also features interviews and commentaries by prominent figures including Indian writer Arundhati Roy, former Formula One Association president Max Mosley and Iranian cleric and activist Mohsen Kadivar.

The editorial content of the website is being translated into Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Urdu, mainly by Oxford graduate students who are native speakers of those languages. Members of the public are invite to register online to join the debate.

‘Freespeechdebate.com is a website for the discussion of free speech in the age of mass migration and the internet,’ said Professor Garton Ash. ‘From yesterday's Wikipedia protest to the role of social media in the Arab Spring, every day brings a free speech controversy to the headlines. Our project aims to contribute structure, depth and detail to this global debate, as well as openness to the views of netizens from different cultures and perspectives.’

He added: ‘We estimate that when all 13 languages are active, our content should be linguistically accessible to more than 80% of the roughly two billion people online. In this way, we also hope to use the possibilities of the internet to enable people speaking in different tongues in different parts of the world to communicate directly with each other, in a spirit of robust civility.’

The whole debate will be digitally archived by the Bodleian Libraries and become an online educational resource. A small display of key documents related to free speech is going up in the Bodleian Library today including a 1217 Magna Carta and early editions of John Milton saved by the Bodleian librarians in the 17th century from being burned by acts of censorship.