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In the past three decades, much of the world has plunged into an almost infinite online warehouse of information, amusement, paranoia and criminality. Every person with an internet connection now has instant access to a multitude of opinions and, crucially, a platform to publish and broadcast their own. It is an entrancing, frightening space — and one where new freedoms call for new rules.

In Free Speech, Timothy Garton Ash rises to the task of directing us how to live civilly in our connected diversity. A writer who has fused the scholar’s profession with the journalist’s trade, he undergirds polymathic arguments for principled freedom with globe-trotting reportage from a decade of thinking about how societies can live in robustly (a favoured word) structured amity. In these 10 years he has created in Oxford, where he is a professor of European history, a website staffed by polylingual post-docs named “Free Speech Debate”: from that enterprise this primer springs.

The site, and the book, articulate 10 principles that Garton Ash believes necessary for speech to be free. These are freedom to “seek and impart” information and ideas; to eschew violent intimidation; to erect no taboos against any form of knowledge; to ensure that the media are uncensored, diverse and trustworthy; to express diverse views “with robust civility”; to respect the freedom of religious believers, not necessarily what they believe; to protect privacy save where exposure is deemed to be in the public interest; to challenge those limits on freedom of information justified by the state on grounds of security; to defend the internet against public or private encroachment; and to cultivate courage in the face of threats to the expression of disputed ideas.

Most of these are sites of contention. What, for example, constitutes the public interest? Was the former Formula One president Max Mosley’s sadomasochistic orgy his own business? Or was he, as the News of the World unsuccessfully argued, a role model whose deviations from the sexual norm prompted its civic duty to publish extensive details and photographs of his sinning?

Among the most contentious, presently, are the “no platform” policies adopted by several student groups, seeking to ban speakers on the grounds that views such as those of Germaine Greer on transsexuals (“I don’t think surgery will turn a man into a woman”) should not be heard. In Garton Ash’s Oxford, protests have centred on the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, directed at the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College (which stands still). The author sees the spreading habit of “taking offence” becoming a veto on all speech the offended see as “threatening” or depriving them of a “safe space”. Thus, he writes, issues “may be ruled off limits just because they might just be offensive to someone”.

On the Free Speech website, the exemplary policy of the University of Chicago includes a quote from a previous chancellor, Robert M Hutchins, who defended an invitation issued in the 1930s to the leader of the US communist party on the grounds that “strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, [should] flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom”.

At the book’s core is the belief that voice, be it ever so base, is best opposed by more voice. Garton Ash himself, a decade ago, was involved in a fierce debate on the anti-Islamist campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom he had called a “slightly simplistic enlightenment fundamentalist” — a view that, in a debate with her in London that I chaired, he forthrightly retracted. It was a classic example of his core idea, voice countering voice and changing minds.

I’d query him on two counts. First, his opposition to secrecy on the part of the intelligence services doesn’t give enough weight to the large part these services play in keeping societies democratic. Large-scale terrorist attacks will push citizens to grasp after authoritarian solutions: consider the extended state of emergency in France, and President François Hollande’s declaration to the National Assembly that France was in “a war against terrorism”. The threat of secret service authoritarianism in the stable democracies (unrealised) is smaller than that of loss of trust in the state to ensure security.

Second, his learning sometimes erects barriers to understanding: here is a formidable journalist fallen among academics. He continually breaks off to quote an authority: in one, relatively brief, paragraph in the section dealing with state secrecy, he quotes Tacitus, the US Senator Daniel Moynihan and an exhibit in the Dresden Hygiene Museum. His own comment — “the worst is when the citizen is transparent to the state but the state is entirely opaque to the citizen” — is more powerful than the citations, yet all but buried under them.

But he picks his authorities well. In another, four-quote paragraph (Michael Walzer, Thomas Scanlon, Karl Popper and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), there is a line from Walzer — “toleration makes difference possible, difference makes toleration necessary” — that is worth reflecting on. As is much in this very fine but over-clotted book.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, by Timothy Garton Ash, Atlantic, RRP£20/Yale University Press, RRP$30, 512 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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