“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved”.
Freedom of speech is a pillar of a robust democratic culture. In recent years, however, public discourse around Europe has been challenged by the spread of various forms of abusive, offensive, and extremist speech. New social media play a central role in this. On the one hand, they exponentially increase the spread and social impact of ‘familiar’ forms of offensive and abusive speech; on the other hand, social media are typically used as a key outlet for nationalist and populist political movements in their aggressive quest for visibility. The need to analyse these phenomena, and to elaborate policy and judicial strategies to countenance them, is a primary motivation in devising the “Rethinking Speech in Critical Times” (RESPECT) Module – a novel teaching project, aimed at providing participants with an in-depth understanding of freedom of speech as a fundamental right and as a cornerstone of constitutional democracy. Through a combination of frontal teaching and more student-centered activities, RESPECT will encourage critical debate on the boundaries of free speech, first by inquiring into its moral and political foundations, and then by focusing on controversial cases of free speech (e.g. holocaust denialism, blasphemy, hate speech). By combining abstract, principle-based speculation with case-based reasoning, RESPECT promises to develop the analytic and argumentative capacities of participants in meeting the challenges to freedom of speech in these critical times, both in their professional and private lives. A first-of-its-kind teaching experience, RESPECT will pay particular attention to the interaction between the philosophical background of freedom of speech, its nature as a fundamental rights and the problems of its implementation in practice, especially concerning borderline cases. Ancillary events will promote public debate and dissemination of knowledge by engaging academics, policy-makers, journalists, NGO’s and other stakeholders.