Free To Speak: Day Two Of The Media Information And Literacy Programme


Olivera Mitić returns for Day Two of our Media Information And Literacy Programme where the focus was free speech.

Why does free speech really matter? When does it cross the boundary into hate and what do we do once it does? These were the main questions asked on the third day of Youth Time International Movement’s programme Media Information & Literacy held in Belgrade, Serbia.

As a way of introducing this important topic, professor Robert Warren of the Anglo-American University in Prague started his first lecture of the day with asking the 40 young participants to think about the following dilemma: “What is the construct of the reality that is you?”

Freedom Of Speech And Its Boundaries

“Today we aren’t going to speak about journalism,” said Warren in his opening remarks. “Instead, I want you to think about how you can be a better version of yourself and what role does free speech play in that.”

Is it the ability it gives us to express ourselves? Is it the art of critical thinking it can teach us? Or does the reason why this right is so dear to us lie in the fact that it encourages our beliefs in the validity of our own core values and opinions? The answers seemed to come in a never ending stream.

“Free speech,” summarises Warren, “Is the first step to becoming a more complete and rational person.” This is why it’s, among many other things, almost always linked to our conceptions on modern politics. 

“You all exist and you all have a right to exist,” says Warren. “And there were many times in history where you couldn’t. Having the right to say what you want to be heard is a very rare occurrence throughout time.”

If we take a look at the origins of democracy, starting from Ancient Greece, going through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Republican Revolutions, and finally ending somewhere in the late 20th Century, we can see a clear pattern – where there is great struggle, democracy follows, going hand in hand with the freedom of expression. “Times are tough right now,” says Warren, “but we must remember where we came from.”

One way to continue pushing these changes forward, is to evaluate and re-evaluate the principles of free speech. By encouraging an environment of polyphonous voices in which everyone can share their principles without the threat of interference. These are the stepping stones towards building an informed citizenry, a society of individuals who are educated and remain to be educated.

“Democracy is not something that we just sit on and believe exists,” explains Warren. “We have to make it happen.”

This means having autonomy to speak and hear, have a free flow of information to make intelligent political choices, contribute to the marketplace of ideas, stimulate, defend, reformulate concepts and make majority rule morally respectable. Only like that do we create democratic values.

“As long as we have communication, we can always maintain the idea of truth,” concluded Warren, asking the participants to talk to each other, step outside of their boundaries and make a small step towards broadening their horizons.

Authority Vs Liberty

In his second lecture on free speech, Warren moved on from the historical perspective on the topic to a more current and practical one. “How free is free speech?” asked the professor, introducing the participants to some of the concepts of the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. 

“Sometimes censorship is necessary,” says Warren. “We can hurt others with our words. We can do harm. However, we can censor when harm might be caused. This is Mill’s notion of the harm principle.”

The democracy of the 21st Century is filled with limitations on free speech. It can be as tame and minor as copyright violations, cultural norms or risk offence, it can come in the form of self censorship, fake news or risk of violence. However, the biggest reasons for censorship in today’s day and age come from the areas of public health, national security and political power. “Power will do anything it can to protect itself,” warns Warren. “Tell the people only what you think they need to know and control will be much easier.”

On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a picture perfect example of censorship for the greater good. During 2020 and continuing into 2021, massive campaigns were launched to stop the spread of misinformation and limit the amount of distortion. On the other hand, a different question rises up: are we on a slippery slope to censor other things?

“If we can prove that offensive comments can lead to harm,“ says Warren, „we have to do something to prevent it.” This is a cue to once again think about free speech and take the time to rethink it over and over again. 

“What can spreading an information do?“ asks Warren. “Do we want that effect to be done? Is more to be gained or lost by curtailing it? We have to keep in mind the impact a comment can make and whether we want that in our society, as well as what the consequences of limiting it could bring about.” One thing should nevertheless always be kept in mind – whatever we do, it shouldn’t stamp over other people’s rights. 

There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech, cultural absolutism and the right to say your mind. In order to take the process of debating this a step further, the participants of the Media Literacy programme held their own forty minute long debate discussing this topic from the perspective of Mill’s ideas on the principle of harm. 

Social Media And Modern Journalism

The final panel of the day, moderated by Josh Donaldson, gathered journalist Tamara Vučenović, social media theorist Christopher Sebastian and professor Danica Čigoja Piper, in order to bring the participants a step closer towards understanding the different ways current technologies shape the way we produce and consume the news. 

“Journalism still has the same role as it did in the previous century,” said Vučenović. “It’s responsible, it serves the public, it informs. The only thing that’s changed is the tools we use nowadays and the overflow of information we have on our hands.”

All these issues can, once taken into perspective however, be good opportunities as well. Especially from the perspective of the freedom of speech. 

“But we have to take privacy into account,“ added Sebastian. “How it affects civil rights and civil liberties.” According to him, cyberspace is in dire need of content moderation and better policies all together. 

“We have to keep developing strategies that ensure the freedom of expression,” claims expert Čigoja Piper. 

“We have to nurture it with the younger generations, reimagine new concepts and make space for guerilla movements.”

Piper also points to the issues certain minority groups have to deal with in the digital era. “Some of them are able to express themselves and create a platform. Others? Not so much. Who defends the rights of the ones who don’t have a presence on media outlets. We have to think wide. Wider than we used to.”

When asked about her first reaction to social media back in the early 2000s, Vučenović couldn’t help but show her distaste. „I hated them in the beginning. But I couldn’t afford to. I had to try and use them to do a better job.“

“Even the creators and owners of social media platforms don’t know everything,“ added professor Piper. Sebastian continued her train of thought: “We need to be aware of how quickly social media changes and how it changes us.”

“People mostly use social media for fun,” thinks Vučenović. “Really few of them use it for activism, but it’s important to start somewhere.” This was the main message left for the participants of the programme.

Robert Warren from Anglo-American University gave our participants an in-depth look into free speech, where everyone got involved to share views and ideas. Our Media & Literacy Programme continues at full force.