May 15, 2024

Is Censorship Ever Necessary or Justified?

Event Series: Free Speech at the Crossroads: International Dialogues

Graffiti of a person writing "Free Speech" on a wall, with "conditions apply" in smaller letters

The debate over censorship in the West is a complex tug-of-war. While freedom of expression is respected as a fundamental right, the question of whether and where to draw the line comes up time and again, and remains contentious. Advocates argue that censorship may be the only way to protect vulnerable minorities, new ones and old ones alike, from potential harm and violence. Nevertheless, critics caution against the slippery slope of censorship, warning of its potential to stifle dissent, suppress marginalized voices, and inhibit the free exchange of ideas essential for democracy. In the pursuit of a more just and equitable society, how should the West grapple with the uneasy balance between liberty and suppression? Are there words and threats that are truly horrific enough to merit exclusion from the public dialogue?

This event was co-sponsored by the Free Speech Project (Georgetown University) and the Future of the Humanities Project (Georgetown University and Blackfriars Hall and Campion Hall, Oxford).

Photo courtesy of Flickr user wiredforlego.


John Drakakis, emeritus professor of English studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, holds a Ph.D from the University of Leeds, as well as an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Clermont-Auvergne. He has published many articles in learned journals and chapters in books on Shakespeare, Jacobean literature and drama, media studies, modern critical theory, and cultural studies. He is a fellow of the English Association and an elected member of the Academia Europoea.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater. In her essay series the Purity Chronicles, she explores the gendered norms of the 1990s and 2000s; a recent piece was entitled "What Do We Do When the Art We Love was Created by a Monster?"

Catherine Pepinster is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster. She has been a senior national newspaper executive and edited the Tablet, the Catholic weekly, for 13 years. She writes regularly for many British national newspapers, mostly not always about religion, as well as for specialist outlets on religion. She authored the book The Keys and The Kingdom - the British and the Papacy (2017), Martyrdom - Why Martyrs Still Matter (2020), and others. She regularly broadcasts for the BBC.

Kate Ruane directs the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project. An attorney with a strong background in legal research, Ruane brings focus to the ways in which strong protections for free expression benefit communities of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ communities, and other oft-censored groups. Her work spans the intersection of civil rights and the U.S. First Amendment, Section 230, online privacy and surveillance, harassment, protecting children online, and disinformation.

John Watson is an associate professor at American University. A journalist for 21 years, he has a law degree and a Ph.D. His research on media law and journalism ethics has been presented at scholarly conferences and published in law reviews. He authored the book Journalism Ethics by Court Decree (2008). He advocates for the formal professionalization and licensing of journalists to provide professional responsibilities and privileges that distinguish them from other mass media content providers.

Michael Scott (moderator) is senior dean, fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, college adviser for postgraduate students, and a member of the Las Casas Institute. He also serves as senior adviser to the president of Georgetown University. Scott previously was the pro-vice-chancellor at De Montfort University and founding vice-chancellor of Wrexham Glyndwr University.

Sanford J. Ungar (moderator), president emeritus of Goucher College, is director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, which documents challenges to free expression in American education, government, and civil society. Director of the Voice of America under President Bill Clinton, he was also dean of the American University School of Communication and is a former co-host of "All Things Considered" on NPR.