Free Speech on Trial

Not so long ago, there was jubilation that the free world and its values had prevailed in the Cold War. When the Communist empire collapsed, some even announced that the victory of liberty and democracy implied the “end of history.”

But history never bowed out; at most, it only took a decade-long intermission, with its next act heralded by the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001. And here the plot has thickened. Instead of rejoicing in the liberal order, those of us who have the pleasure of living under it have had to struggle to keep it intact and strong.

Since 9/11, more and more freedoms are being restricted in the name of defending liberty. New visa requirements and other obstacles to travel, more intimate data collected by governments, and the presence of video cameras everywhere – at once benign and intrusive – remind one more of George Orwell’s Big Brother than of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

Britain is not the only country where ancient rights of habeas corpus, of the inviolability of the person, are to be restricted by new legislation that, for example, extends the permissible length of detention without charge. Now, even the fundamental right of a liberal order, free speech, is under pressure.