Is Free Expression in Danger? Atlantic Summit Participants Discuss Whether Government Should Silence Offensive Speech

Controversies regarding online platforms, intimidation of members of the press, and increasing examples of divisiveness in other aspects of our communities and our daily lives are generating questions about how the ability to speak freely intersects with the continuation of social progress.

National magazine The Atlantic acknowledged and invited those questions from a diverse group of free speech scholars, journalists, technology leaders, and everyday people through its recent “Free Speech (Un)Limited” event. The event serves as the launch of The Atlantic’s year-long reporting project exploring the causes of and solutions to polarization in the United States, which is made possible through support from the Charles Koch Foundation, the Fetzer Institute, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Here is a sampling of what speakers shared:

“What’s under threat are not laws so much as norms.” — Jeff Goldberg, Editor in Chief, The Atlantic, speaking about press freedom under the Trump administration.

“Everyone needs to learn how to be challenged… and to learn how to think. The only way you do this through intellectual challenge and discourse.” — Robert Zimmer, President, University of Chicago.

“I learned that no one is irredeemable… if you’re really committed to [free expression], you have to have uncomfortable conversations.” — Brittan Heller, Former Director of Technology and Society, Anti-Defamation League.

“What that inspired for us was a need to use our resources to support the creation of those spaces for dialogue to occur, to create those moments where people feel open where they otherwise might not be to having dialogues across divides.” — Sarah Ruger, Director of Free Expression, Charles Koch Institute, speaking on her conversation with International Space Station astronauts.

“We need to draw a distinction between speech that’s undesirable and speech that we want to legally ban … The minute you invite the government to draw distinctions … you invite discretion into that realm.” — Suzanne Nossel, CEO, PEN America.

“If it was up to me, I would ban hate speech, but on the other hand I know that if that happened then we would go from struggling over free speech to struggling over what is hate speech.” — Ibram X. Kendi, Professor and Director, The Antiracist Research and Policy Center, American University.

“Global free press has been in a world of hurt of at least the last 10 years… Added to this toxic stew you have the president of the United States making it clear how he feels about the press, there’s a global impact to that… The impact of Trump is perhaps greater globally than it is at home.” — Michael Abramowitz, President, Freedom House.

“There’s a big difference between the Twitter mob and everyday people… I don’t think that people not being able to speak is the real issue. I think it’s the self-censorship issue that is going on that is the problem. The cure is much worse than the disease.”  — Noam Dworman, Owner, Comedy Cellar.

“I believe that the best way you get accuracy and understanding, and civil and tolerant debate is by having an honest and transparent exchange of ideas.” — Elliot Schrage, Outgoing Vice President of Communications and Public Policy, Facebook.

Learn more about the panels here.

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