May 26, 2016 Print

Photo credit: Caleb O. Brown

Free expression is in danger across the globe. Protestors who are offended by the ideas of others have a chilling effect on the publication and dissemination of speech — and some of those protests aim for a violent suppression of ideas they don’t like. Danish journalist Flemming Rose found himself at the center of controversy in 2005 after the newspaper he worked for at the time, Jyllands-Posten, published a set of editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His recent book, The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, recounts that period and explains why it’s important to take an active role in defending the right to speak and publish. For his work advancing the cause of free speech, the Cato Institute has awarded Rose the 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, presented on May 25 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

In Rose’s acceptance speech for the $250,000 Milton Friedman Prize, which is awarded by the Cato Institute biannually, he explained that the primary value of free speech lies not in its practical role in helping lead society toward truth, but in its fundamental characteristic as the hallmark of a free society.

“If the only justification for free speech is that it helps society obtain the truth, then society may decide that it does not want to prioritize discovery of the truth,” Rose said during his acceptance speech. “Most people are not truth seekers. They are affected by biases, and they do not necessarily want to find truth. Participation in public debate is rarely about open-minded pursuit of truth. Most people consume information according to their pre-existing preferences rather than information that challenges them. I think that we need to defend and value free speech not so much because of what it achieves, but rather for what it is. Free speech is a right. It's a matter of individual agency — an element of individual autonomy that precedes government and the political and social order of society. It's about who we are as human beings. Speech is not just one among many human attributes. It is a defining attribute of the human. With the freedom to speak, an individual is free. Without that freedom, an individual is not free.”

Rose has been subject to continual death threats during the years since he published those cartoons, with a price placed on his head, requiring him and many of the cartoonists to go into hiding and obtain full-time bodyguards. Despite this violent backlash, however, Rose maintained his defense of free expression.

“For the past 10 years, censorship per­petrated by violent Islamic extremists has been a flash point in the long struggle for the freedom of the press,” the Cato Institute wrote. “Through it all, Flemming Rose has been an exceptionally principled and articulate advocate of the importance of press freedom. In count­less interviews, op-eds, and radio and TV appearances, he has made the case that all ideas deserve a public airing in an atmo­sphere free from threat and violence. His book, The Tyranny of Silence, chronicles the events of the cartoon controversy and details their chilling implications for the freedom of expression worldwide. It has become a modern classic on the need to stand up for intellectual, press, and artistic freedom.”

Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, gave the keynote speech at the Milton Friedman Prize dinner, warning that the United States needs to learn from the experience many Latin American countries have with populist demagogues controlling their governments and economies, to disastrous results. He also offered his own defense of a free and open society in the face of current political rhetoric that seeks to exclude. “We should be building bridges, not walls,” Fox said. “And, by the way: Bridges we will gladly pay for.”

Previous winners of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty include Leszek Balcerowicz, deputy prime minister and finance minister of Poland; Mao Yushi, president of Beijing-based Atlas Network partner the Unirule Institute of Economics; Akbar Ganji, an Iranian writer and journalist; Yon Goicoechea, leader of a Venezuelan pro-democracy movement; Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Estonia; Hernando de Soto, president of Atlas Network partner Instituto Libertad y Democracia; and Peter Bauer, the late development economist.