Global Freedom of Expression

CGFoE’s 10th Anniversary, Keynote Speech by Aryeh Neier

Key Details

  • Region
  • Themes
    Academic Freedom, Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, Internet Shutdowns, Political Expression, Press Freedom, Violence Against Speakers / Impunity

Keynote Address by Aryeh Neier at the Opening Session of CGFoE’s 10th Anniversary

April 25, 2024

Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York City

Watch Aryeh Neier speak on our YouTube channel

As Hawley indicated, my work in the rights field goes back several decades. If you will indulge me, I would like to draw upon that experience in making a few comments about the situation today at this university before I say a bit about the global challenges to freedom of expression today. I think the events at this university indicate that there are challenges to freedom of expression here in the United States, as well as in other countries.

My work goes back to the period when members of Congress used their positions in the Congress to demagogically harass people who were considered to be associated with the organizations that were leftist or not supportive of some of the policies of the United States. It goes back to the period of the McCarthy hearings in the United States and the hearings of the House on Un-American Activities Committee. In those years, members of Congress postured and harassed individuals at universities and in other institutions about their loyalty to the United States.

I think the developments in the last few days indicate that there are members of Congress today who are willing to proceed along the same path. I think people like Representative Virginia Foxx and Representative Elise Stefanik are misusing the powers of Congress to engage in such harassments. Representative Foxx has said, with respect to universities, that “Congress will hold them accountable.” I see nothing in the Constitution of the United States that gives Congress the power to hold anyone accountable, other than in its impeachment powers with respect to the officers of the federal government. It certainly does not have those powers as far as the Constitution is concerned. The role of the Congress is to legislate, not to hold anyone accountable.

I think that the President of Columbia made a mistake in trying to appease demagogic members of Congress. It does not work. I think that is part of the problem that we have today. I think the effort to appeasement was mistaken in calling in the police to evict what I understand to have been peaceful protestors who are not disrupting classes or other important activities at the university. I think it was improper appeasement to suspend a large number of students. I also think it was inappropriate for the President of the University to discuss the positions of individual faculty members before the hearing of the United States Congress.

Clearly, there are limits on protest activities. These activities may not include intimidation or threats and may not include harassment of students or faculty in the university. They may not include incitement to violence. When there are specific cases of activity of that sort, it is appropriate for a university to take action, but it is not appropriate for a university to have peaceful protesters arrested.

I want to reflect on that. In 1968, when there were occupations of buildings at Columbia, I was then at the American Civil Liberties Union, and I remember being called by an aid to the Mayor and being told that evening the police would probably conduct a raid at Columbia. I went to the university that evening. At 11 o’clock at night, nothing had happened, so I went home. The police raid took place at 2 o’clock in the morning – about three hours after I left the university campus. The police then acted with extreme violence, and at the Civil Liberties Union, we engaged in legal representation of students for a period of months and even years after that raid on the campus took place, and we published a major report on police on campus at that time.

I think it had been understood after those events that calling in the police would be an absolutely last resort at the university, and that before it were done, the university president would consult with the university senate and also the student groups on the campus to see if there were any ways of resolving problems without calling in the police. Unfortunately, that seems to have been disregarded, and I think that was a great mistake. Clearly, these protests have spread to other universities around the country. That was a predictable result.

There have been unfortunate statements on this matter by various people, for example, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League has published an article describing anti-semitism chants of “Free Palestine” or “Ceasefire Now.” That conflation of a position on the current development in Gaza with anti-semitism is, I think, entirely inappropriate and is part of the difficulty. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel has also chimed in now, not helpfully. 

I hope that this university will manage to overcome these problems. This university, particularly under the leadership of Lee Bollinger, was the outstanding institution in the United States, promoting freedom of expression. The establishment of the Global Freedom of Expression Program is one example of that. The establishment of the Knight Institute, which has become the leading litigation institution, dealing with free speech in the digital age in the United States is another indication of the leadership of this university. And I hope this university again provides leadership in this field. 

Let me now take a few moments to talk a little more broadly about the threat to freedom of expression today. We have contradictory developments. We have, on the one hand, regional court systems in Europe, Latin America, and Africa, that have made great strides in the protection of freedom of expression. And today, litigating on behalf of freedom of expression in those courts and in the national courts, which take the lead from international courts, has been of immense significance in protecting freedom of expression. On the other hand, we have a number of large countries that have been particularly repressive in the recent past. I would cite five of those countries. I would cite Russia, China, India, Turkey, and Mexico, and a word or two about each of those countries. 

In Russia, during the Soviet period, in the post-Stalin period, there were people sent to prison for exercising freedom of expression. But in the post-Stalin period – from Stalin’s death in 1953 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 – there was no case that I can think of in which someone was killed because of their exercise of freedom of expression. And yet, in the current period, under Vladimir Putin, the most recent killing was of Alexey Navalny, and apparently, he was continuing to be able to communicate a few ideas even from prison beyond the Arctic Circle with a 19-year prison sentence in front of him. That was not enough, and Alexey Navalny, as everyone knows, was killed. Before Alexey Navalny was killed there were a number of other prominent dissenters: Boris Nemtsov, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and others were killed under Vladimir Putin. Even those who have been sentenced to prison have been sentenced to extraordinary sentences that go beyond anything that took place in the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin period: Vladimir Kara-Murza has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for his efforts to criticize the war in Ukraine.

As far as China is concerned, whatever movement that had been towards the rule of law and protection of freedom of expression has been reversed since the advent of Xi Jinping. To cite one case recently that indicates the situation of freedom of expression in China: a professor of economics was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for an article in which he questioned the financial expenditure on government salaries.

India is regularly referred to as the world’s largest democracy. It has elections on the way today. And yet India has been the site of more Internet shutdowns than any other country in the world. And to use a particular case as an example, the BBC recently ran a broadcast dealing with Prime Minister Modi’s role while he was Chief Executive of Gujarat in dealing with Muslims in that province. That was soon followed by a raid on the offices of the BBC by tax inspectors in India. 

Turkey in recent years has generally vied for the status of being the country that imprisons the largest number of journalists. I understand that at this moment there are 43 journalists who are imprisoned in Turkey, supposedly for engaging in terrorism. And of course, Turkey defies the orders of the European Court of Human Rights. My colleague and friend Osman Kavala has been in prison for the last seven years. The European Court of Human Rights has directed his release more than once, but he remains in prison.

To cite the case of Mexico, it seems to be the most dangerous country in which to be a journalist. There are more journalists killed in Mexico, as far as I know, than in any other country. I gathered that during the first nine months of the past year, eight journalists were killed in Mexico. That kind of killing of journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico has been a phenomenon that has continued from year to year.

So, on the one hand, we have courts in different parts of the world, principally in the Western hemisphere, in Africa, and in Europe, that are protecting freedom of expression. On the other hand, we have some of the largest and most powerful countries of the world engaging in practices that are extremely detrimental to freedom of expression. So we have a lot of challenges ahead of us.

Thank you.


Aryeh Neier

President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations
Co-founder of Human Rights Watch