Milton Friedman

Flemming Rose Wins 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty

Danish journalist and author of The Tyranny of Silence published Muhammad cartoons in free speech fight against self-censorship

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Flemming Rose, Danish journalist and author of The Tyranny of Silence, will receive the 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, announced the Cato Institute today. Every two years, the libertarian think awards a $250,000 prize presented to an individual whom it deems has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom. Rose, editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, came to global prominence as a defender of free speech in 2005 when he commissioned and published 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. As Cato's press release notes, "The illustrations, intended to draw attention to the issue of self-censorship and the threat that intimidation poses to free speech, provoked deadly chaos in the Islamic world and put Rose in the center of a global debate about the limits to free speech in the 21st century."

Despite numerous death threats, Rose has refused to stand down or apologize for his defense of free speech. In his superb book, The Tyranny of Silence, Rose not only calls out ongoing censorship in Muslim majority countries, but more importantly excoriates Western governments for using "hate speech" laws as excuses to stifle free speech in their own countries. In my review, "The Human Right to Offend," I argued:

As alarming as the actions of Muslim governments and individual believers have been, the reactions of many European governments and some supposed guardians of free speech have been even more dismaying. In Denmark, the public prosecutor considered bringing a case against the newspaper for blasphemy or racism. Out of fear of Islamist attacks, art exhibitions have been sanitized, movies suppressed, and people punished for "hate speech." The European Court of Human Rights has defined hate speech as "all form of expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance (including religious intolerance)." This completely turns the concept of tolerance on its head.

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As Rose correctly argues, tolerance properly understood is the ability to accept speech one dislikes. "When we focus on non-discrimination and equality, and aim to empower the aggrieved, tolerance is no longer about the ability to tolerate things we don't like," he explains. "It becomes the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may dislike." Calls to ban offensive speech sacrifices diversity of expression in the name of respecting diversity of culture. "If we accept the idea that people have a right not to be offended, we will end up with a tyranny of silence, for almost any speech may be deemed offensive," declares Rose.

Insult fundamentalists justify their efforts to restrict speech with the catchphrase, "Freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to offend." In fact, there is no freedom of speech if people cannot offend those who would deny women equal rights, persecute homosexuals, and commit violence against people who do not share their faith. "The idea that if you say something that might be construed as offensive, you somehow restrict the liberty of others is nonsense," argues Rose. He is entirely right. …

Nothing undercuts the power and propaganda of tyrants and religious zealots more than the right of people to speak and write uncensored. In a free society, people can pursue and propound their own versions of the truth. In a fear society, everyone must submit to and live with lies. Societies in which citizens can speak freely flourish; societies muzzled by despots shrivel. 

"We know from history that if we submit to terror and threats; what we do not get is less terror and fewer threats," writes Rose. "What we get is more terror and more threats." Self-censorship in the face of intimidation has another name: cowardice.

Hearty congratulations to Rose!

For more background, see various articles by my Reason colleagues including, "Despite Constant Death Threats, Flemming Rose is Still a 'Free Speech Fundamentalist',", and our 2007 interview with Rose, "Revisiting the Danish Cartoon Crisis."

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