Professor Timothy Garton Ash wants to get the whole world talking about freedom of speech.

Timothy Garton Ash

The journalist, author and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University came to talk at the JMSC on Thursday, April 19 about the Free Speech Project.

The web site, which is run by Oxford, is an ambitious attempt “to facilitate and promote a serious, multilingual and global conversation about free speech norms on the Internet,” said Garton Ash, who writes regular columns for The Guardian newspaper in the UK and has written nine books, as well as winning many awards. He is the Free Speech Project’s Director.

The web site operates in 13 languages – which, Garton Ash said, would enable the site to reach more than 80% of the world’s Internet users.

The web site uses Google Translate to translate articles and user comments into the various languages.

Garton Ash explained that the website is designed to encourage a global debate in order to find universal values governing free speech.

“In an increasingly interdependent world, we have to get into a conversation about universal values,” he said. “How do we have that conversation? You put on the table your ideas about your values and are then willing to discuss them.”

The audience listens to Garton Ash

With this in mind, the project has come up with a working list of 10 draft principles for global free speech. To read the principles go to the website and click on “10 Draft principles”.

Most questions that followed the talk, from students, alumni and staff,  revolved round the same theme: whether those 10 principles were Western, liberal and elitist.

In a lively discussion, audience members pointed out that many people in China would neither relate to nor accept them.

Garton Ash defended the principles, but also said that the whole purpose of the project was to provoke debate; universal agreement was neither expected nor desired, he said.

He invited the audience to go onto the site to contribute  suggestions and opinions.

“The success of this whole project depends on people like you,” he said to a room so crowded that people spilled into the hallway.

“I’d encourage you to come onto the site and contribute in whatever language you like.”

19 April 2012

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