Global Freedom of Expression

CGFoE’s 10th Anniversary, Keynote Speech by Dr. Hawley Johnson

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Keynote Address by Dr. Hawley Johnson at CGFoE’s 10th Anniversary Celebration

April 25, 2024

Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York City

Watch Dr. Hawley Johnson speak on our YouTube channel

Good morning everyone. I’m Hawley Johnson, Associate Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression. It is a privilege to welcome you to the ten-year anniversary celebration of our initiative. 

This event marks a decade of significant collaboration, notably with UNESCO and Guilherme Canela, which has greatly contributed to our growth and the strengthening of our efforts. The daylong event is being generously livecast by the Internet Society, so I would like to extend a warm welcome to all our online guests and thank the Internet Society for their kind support.  

Thank you all for joining us today under what are undoubtedly extraordinary circumstances. Given the current turbulence both here and on campuses across the United States, we were faced with a challenging decision: whether to postpone or even cancel today’s event. However, we decided it was crucial to convene as a community to reflect on the international norms and best practices to protect freedom of expression.

The title of today’s event, “Safeguarding Free Expression: The Role of Judicial Systems in Pivotal Times,” speaks directly to the critical juncture at which we find ourselves—not only for our university but also for the broader landscape of democracy. This includes the rise of populism and authoritarianism, as well as the threats posed by climate change and artificial intelligence. These are formidable challenges to humanity, demanding attention and action.

It is not a time to be silent but to speak out in defense of international norms on freedom of expression. 

The international human rights system was established following World War II to codify principles and practices to guide states in protecting fundamental rights. Today, our aim is to reaffirm and reflect on those standards. When tensions rise, we need them most.

While we are based at an American institution, our initiative has a global perspective. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is our touchstone, so bear with me as I think it is important at this time to take a moment to recall its fundamental freedom of expression principles.

Article 19, Paragraph 1 states that everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Paragraph 2 states everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice.

Article 21 protects the right to peaceful assembly.

These rights, however, are not absolute and do come with restrictions. 

Thus, Article 19, Paragraph 3 states that the exercise of the rights carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such that are provided by law, clearly defined, and are necessary and proportional to protect certain enumerated rights and societal interests. 

In recent years and days, we have all had to think about what are necessary and proportionate restrictions on expression in democratic societies. The thresholds on when to act are not often clear and are often contentious. International Human Rights law does provide some guidance. 

Article 20 of the ICCPR, for instance, prohibits propaganda for war, as well as advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. 

While there is no international consensus on when speech becomes dangerous, the Rabat Plan of Action offers a six-part threshold test on the distinction between freedom of expression and the incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence. 

These are the principles that Global Freedom of Expression seeks to advance.

Global Freedom of Expression was launched in 2014 by our visionary and steadfast founding Director Dr. Agnès Callamard and then President of Columbia University, and First Amendment Scholar, Lee C. Bollinger. 

Since its founding, the initiative has sought to strengthen global norms on freedom of expression in order to safeguard the global public sphere, as well as to “build bridges across multiple jurisdictions, and disciplines.” By focusing on the institutions of justice and surveying and analyzing related international, regional, and national jurisprudence, the initiative contributes to a comparative understanding of global trends. 

Key achievements over the last years include the development of our now-flagship Global Case Law Database, which on average has between 5,000 and 7,000 views per day; the Justice for Freedom of Expression conferences; the establishment of the Global Freedom of Expressions Prizes; a Massive Open Online Course on the edX platform; and the publication of an edited Volume Regardless of Frontiers: Global Freedom of Expression in a Troubled World.

Today, we are privileged to have with us an incredible community of legal and issue-area experts, whose contributions have been invaluable. While Dr. Agnès Callamard could not join us, we are pleased to welcome my former colleague Bach Avezdjanov, who joined us in 2015, and several other founding supporters, including several speakers here today, as well as Dr. Doreen Weisenhaus, Peter Micek, Rob Balin, Dinah PoKempner, and Karin Karlekar, among others.

Unfortunately, some of our core supporters could not be present today but are with us in spirit, including Judge Fernando Biolcati, Barbora Bukovská, Dr. Alberto Godioli, David Kaye, Tarlach McGonagle, Jacob Mchangama, Dario Milo, Peter Noorlander, Judge Darian Pavli, Monroe Price, Prof. Em. Dr. Dirk Voorhoof, and Can Yeginsu.

We have a very exciting two-part program today. Our joint conference with UNESCO will run until 3:30 PM, with a break for the networking lunch and a book conversation. The conference will then be followed by the 2024 Global Freedom of Expression Prize Ceremony starting at 4:00 PM.

Today’s panels will review landmark decisions from the past decade that have strengthened democratic governance and freedom of expression, and they will explore how courts can constructively address the challenges that lie ahead.

True critical thinking involves examining all sides and fostering a space for dialogue. This approach is essential to ensure that we are making moral choices. Today, we aim to engage in such critical discussions, examining the robust role judicial systems can play during these turbulent times.

Thank you for your commitment to this dialogue, and we look forward to a day of thoughtful and productive discussions.


Hawley Johnson

Associate Director, Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University