Syndicate content

Global Public Sphere

Who Decides What is Acceptable Speech in the Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Is free speech a fundamental right and does it have appropriate limits? Pope Francis has provided the most memorable recent attempt at an answer. Yes, there is such a thing as a right to free speech but if you upset people you might have a punch travelling towards your face. But the Pope’s intervention is only one amongst many. In the wake of the recent terrorist outrages in Paris, and the massive responses to it globally, a debate has erupted about the nature of free speech and its appropriate boundaries. It is an intense and global debate, but, as often happens when human emotions are all aquiver, there has been more heat than light. In what follows, I will make an effort to untangle the issues before tackling the question I posed in the heading.

And in doing so, I am going to take two views of free speech. The first is what I call the internal view: free speech considered within the boundaries of specific countries and legal systems. The second is what I call the global view: free speech within the emerging global public sphere.  I begin with the internal view.

Is There a Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

One of the ways in which the world we live in today feels very different from the one we lived in even a decade ago is how ‘connected’ we all feel these days. It does seem that there are issues that we all talk about, personages and celebrities that we all know, and technological means of information sharing and exchange that we all share.  Yet, can we say that one of the consequences of globalization is that we now have a global public sphere, especially now that Fareed Zakaria of CNN calls his talk show ‘The Global Public Square’?

You will recall that a public sphere is a metaphor for a space that still exists in some contexts: the village square, the town hall… a place where people come together to talk about common concerns, a process that leads to the crystallization of public opinion.  Beyond the level of the village or the small town --- situations where most inhabitants can conceivably gather and talk – the public sphere becomes a grand metaphor, but a useful one. As Denis McQuail asserts in his classic text on communication theory, in most national contests today the ‘media are now probably the key institution of the public sphere, and its “quality” will depend on the quality of the media’. [See McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, Fifth Edition, page 566.]