A right, not a duty

By The Economist online

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. By Timothy Garton Ash. Yale University Press; 491 pages; $30. Atlantic Books; £20.

ON MARCH 31st Jan Böhmermann, a German comedian, read out a satirical poem on live television. He had admitted beforehand that the verses—in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is described as a zoophile and paedophile, among much else—would land him in trouble. He was right: Mr Böhmermann may now face charges under an arcane German law which criminalises insults against foreign heads of state. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, may repeal the law, but not before the authoritarian Mr Erdogan has been able to exploit it.

Mr Böhmermann’s case makes the publication of “Free Speech” by Timothy Garton Ash, an academic at Oxford University, particularly timely. In 2011 Mr Garton Ash created freespeechdebate.com with students at his university. Before that, he had personal experience of how free speech can be curtailed while travelling in eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall: he describes a Polish censor’s verdict he received in 1989 for an article on the “total bankruptcy” of socialism, and watching a woman swallow a piece of cigarette paper after asking him to memorise the message on it, eating her words. The result is a powerful, comprehensive…

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