Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard Professors at the Alma Mater Europaea Symposium

Mark Tushnet of Harvard Law School spoke at the Alma Mater Europaea's symposium

Alma Mater Europaea hosted this year’s most significant international virtual conference on freedom of expression. The event, Free Speech in the 21st Century, featured 52 speakers and discussants from 28 countries.

On July 3 and 4, 2020, the International Association of Constitutional Law (IACL) and Alma Mater Europaea hosted ‘Free Speech in the 21st Century’, a virtual symposium discussing the changing understanding of the freedom of expression and its limits.

The conference included speakers such as Harvard Law Professor Mark Tushnet; András Sajó, a member of Facebook’s Oversight Board; Fordham University Law Professor Olivier Sylvain; University of Tokyo, Professor Itsuko Yamaguchi; Elisa Bertolini and Oreste Pollicino of Bocconi University, and many more.

The two-day conference covered one of the most critical issues facing democracy in the 21st century: the future of free speech in the age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

The conference was planned to take place in Ljubljana. “When the Covid crisis started, most organisers cancelled or postponed their events. We moved online. This is the most important legal scholarship conference Slovenia ever hosted. For the first time, leading legal scholars spoke at one of Slovenia’s higher education institutions in such numbers.” said Jurij Toplak, the head organiser of the event who also chaired and moderated the program. Toplak is a law professor at the University of Maribor, Faculty of Law, a visiting professor at Fordham University Law School and the Executive Vice President of Alma Mater Europaea in Slovenia.

The event was one of the largest virtual scholarly meetings so far this year, featured 52 speakers and 130 attendees. “It was a unique round-the-clock and round-the-globe event. During Asia’s daytime, Asian and Australian speakers presented, when it was daytime in Europe and the Americas, scholars from Europe, Africa, the US and Canada presented,” Toplak added.

Free speech is one of the essential democratic rights and one of the most controversial. Whether it is Donald Trump’s Twitter account, Larry Flynt’s pornographic magazine, protests against police, the financing of an election campaign as determined in Citizens United, fake news or hate speech directed at migrants, immigrants or minorities, free speech incidents attract intense media coverage and regularly provoke debate as to its limits, if any exist.

Should Google, Facebook and Twitter have the authority to censor the contents and close users’ accounts arbitrarily? Or, should they stay politically neutral and be allowed to block users only when users violate specific terms? Given that these social networks are so powerful in affecting global public opinion, should we continue to treat them as regular companies or should we treat them as public utilities or ad-driven websites? These are some of the questions addressed by the symposium.

Jurij Toplak: When others cancelled their international events, we moved our conference online, which was a huge success.

Toplak, a visiting professor at Fordham Law School in New York, serves as the co-convenor of the IACL’s Free Speech Research Group, together with Jimmy Chia-Shin Hsu, an Associate Professor at the Academia Sinica, Taiwan.

The participants agreed that digital transformation and the new forms of digital communication are affecting legal interpretations. Digital media has infiltrated everyday life, making people adapt their behavior to the new digital context.

In his keynote lecture, Harvard Law Professor Mark Tushnet suggested that we might consider treating certain types of messages, such as threats to individuals or dissemination of “fake news”, when it’s shared on social media, differently to when it’s disseminated in traditional media. The low cost, enormous reach and ability to spread messages anonymously may justify different old and new media treatment.

András Sajó, a member of Facebook’s Oversight Board and former Vice President of the European Court of Human Rights, explained in his keynote address the change which is currently undergoing in the understanding of the freedom of speech. Freedom of expression, which has been so crucial for democracy, is now fading away and becoming irrelevant because the communication is moving to private platforms where constitutional protections do not apply. The relationship between the user and the platform is contractual, and the platform is not bound by the constitutional norms the way authorities are. We are approaching an era of private censorship in which a small number of web platform owners control global communication.

The event will serve as the basis for further research on the impact of freedom of expression, including panels on this topic at the next IACL World Congress, scheduled for 2022 in Johannesburg.

Alma Mater Europaea is based in the Austrian city of Salzburg, with campuses in Slovenia and several other countries. It was founded by the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, a society of around 2000 prominent scholars, including 32 Nobel laureates. In Slovenia, about 1300 students from 18 countries get their doctoral, masters and bachelor degrees in social sciences, project management, humanities, nursing, physical therapy and more.

The International Association of Constitutional Law (IACL) is an international scholarly association devoted to constitutional law advancement. It provides a forum in which constitutionalists from all parts of the world can research each other’s systems, reflect on their own, and engage in fruitful comparison.