Commentary

A Portrait in Courage

Both around the world and here at home, free speech is under assault. From the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris to the “unexplained” deaths of critics of Russian president Vladimir Putin, people who express unpopular opinions or report the truth are in danger. Worldwide, more than 110 journalists were killed in 2015, bringing the total to 787 since 2005, according to Reporters without Borders.

The threats to free speech in this country don’t rise to that level, of course. But Hillary Clinton wants to change the First Amendment to limit political speech, and Donald Trump wants to rewrite libel laws so that he can sue media critics. Meanwhile, colleges routinely punish those who take unpopular stands and reject speakers who might challenge student orthodoxy.

That’s one reason why it is significant that the Cato Institute will award the eighth biennial Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to a true champion of free speech, the Danish journalist and author Flemming Rose.

The right and ability to challenge orthodoxy, to speak truth to power, is essential to preserving our freedom.

Rose came to the world’s attention in 2005, when, as an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, he published a series of twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Rose did so, not because he sought to be offensive, he said, but to challenge the growing wave of “self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.”

Rose’s decision to publish the cartoons sparked riots in Europe and across the Islamic world. A price was put on Rose’s head, and he has received numerous credible death threats. A plot to assassinate him was disrupted by the FBI in 2009. Still, he firmly rejects the idea, so prevalent these days, that “you have a right not to be insulted or offended.”

While he came to prominence as a result of the Muhammad cartoons, Rose is not a provocateur but a defender of free speech as a matter of principle. In fact, he has recently undertaken a new cause: standing up for Muslims targeted by some of Europe’s new anti-terror laws, and fighting restrictions on religious speech deemed “extreme” by authorities. He has condemned Dutch politician Geert Wilders’s call to ban the Quran.

Rose has spoken out against groups ranging from Russian Orthodox authorities to Hindu nationalists who have been attacking free expression, sometimes under the color of law, sometimes violently. He has criticized U.S. corporate and campus speech codes. In November 2014, he released The Tyranny of Silence, which recounts his experience with the Muhammad cartoons and goes on to make a spirited case against censorship anywhere in the world.

Rose traces his dedication to free speech to experiences he had as a reporter covering the fall of the Soviet Union. “The dissidents in the Soviet Union made a strong impression on me,” he told an interviewer for The Atlantic in March, because they showed him just “how important it is to have the right to attack ideas, no matter what.”

His experiences in the Soviet Union also left him a critic of government power and socialism generally; he told The Atlantic that the Soviet Union showed “what a real socialist society looked like: dysfunctional, authoritarian, and murderous.”

In announcing the award, Cato president Peter Goettler declared that it represented a recognition that “freedom of expression and speech is fundamental to the advancement of civilization and is critical in protecting the values of liberty and limited government.”

The Friedman Prize, which carries with it a $250,000 cash award, was established in 2002 and is presented every two years, following deliberation by a distinguished board from around the world. The previous winners are: former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Poland Leszek Balcerowicz; dissident Chinese economist Mao Yushi; Iranian writer and journalist Akbar Ganji; a leader of the Venezuelan student pro-democracy movement, Yon Goicoechea; former prime minister of Estonia Mart Laar; Peruvian property-rights reformer Hernando de Soto; and the late British economist Peter Bauer.

The right and ability to challenge orthodoxy, to speak truth to power, is essential to preserving our freedom.

Now, more than ever, people need to be free to dissent from the existing political order. The right and ability to challenge orthodoxy, to speak truth to power, is essential to preserving our freedom. This is not about being rude or crude in the name of fighting “political correctness” — though being a jerk should be protected as well. Rather, this is about the inalienable human right to speak our minds. Every time someone surrenders his right to speak in the face of government repression, terrorists, or even hecklers, it diminishes us all.

The courage and consistency of Flemming Rose reminds us what is at stake.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis.