Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the “Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” conference was held by the Forum for the Academy and the Public at the UCI Law School and the UCI Student Center this past weekend to discuss recent intrusions on free speech.
Keynote speaker Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA employee who leaked National Security Agency documents to the press in 2013, joined the conference through a live Google hangout broadcast, along with Barton Gellman, the journalist who led the Washington Post’s coverage of the NSA document leak.
The weekend-long event drew hundreds of attendees, especially during the live broadcast with Snowden. He and Gellman were invited to the conference by Amy Wilentz, one of the conference’s organizers and professor of literary journalism at UCI.
“My husband and I worked in the 1990s as journalists alongside Barton Gellman in Jerusalem. When I heard that Bart was doing Snowden’s biography, [it occurred to me that], perhaps, Edward might be willing to speak to the UCI and USC communities for this conference. Happily, when Bart asked him, Edward said yes,” Wilentz said. “Having both of these fascinating figures in conversation together was really wonderful and illuminating.”
From the safety of Moscow, where he sought asylum after the 2013 leaks, Snowden spoke about the importance of an individual’s right to privacy and of the government’s recent encroachments on privacy rights in the new technological era.
As a former member of the CIA and NSA, Snowden discussed the oath he took to preserve and protect the United States Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unwarranted search and seizure. Snowden discussed that the U.S. Government and governments abroad have deprived citizens of that explicitly-granted right.
To Snowden, this is a pressing concern because the right to privacy is the fundamental right from which other rights are derived, such as the right to private property and the right to products of intellect, which he described as the ability to “develop your ideas and selectively share them with colleagues, adversaries and rivals.”
Moreover, Snowden argued, the right to privacy allows individuals outside the majority to advocate for their causes and ideas. The majority may not need privacy, but Snowden highlighted that slavery, segregation and the prohibition of gay marriage — once norms of the majority — could not have been overturned without individuals having the privacy to coordinate and debate.
“You can think about the fact that our country was actually born out of privacy,” said Snowden, referencing the Founding Fathers’ meeting in secret to devise the Constitution. “Without the right to privacy, the Revolutionary War would’ve been a very short war and we would’ve lost.”
Snowden also spoke about the ways the government has been infringing on citizens’ right to privacy more recently, such as by working with third party cell phone companies to gather metadata records of citizens’ internet search histories, their location and with whom they communicate.
Per the audience’s concern about changes they should make to their daily lives because of increased government surveillance, Snowden posed the question: “Should we change our lives, or should we change our government?”
Snowden also discussed that having unwarranted access to these records in the name of fighting terrorism has not successfully led to deterring or containing any terrorist activities, but has simply served as a violation of a fundamental right without the public’s consent.
“Once [governments and institutions] have granted to themselves a certain authority or a certain power, they very quickly become accustomed to that power, even if it is not necessary,” said Snowden. “It is far more difficult to get the government to give up a power than it is to prevent them from gaining that power in the first place.”
During the conference, political cartoonists and authors spoke about the threats they have received for their published work. Moreover, much of their work was simply not published, limiting their rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
A special panelist was political cartoonist Zunar, who attended the conference from Malaysia, and spoke about the responsibility of using expression and talent as a form of protest against a regressive government. Zunar will face trial and could potentially be sentenced to more than 40 years of prison for charges on his controversial cartoons.
“We have a right not to agree with the content of the cartoon,” said Zunar. “I, too, as a Muslim, I did not agree with the content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, but I respect [the satirists’] right of freedom of expression.”
Given the conference’s venue on a university campus, panelists also spoke about the need to maintain freedom of expression and safe spaces for minorities on campus.
“We need to continually maintain the rights and responsibilities [of students] on our campuses,” said Barry Glassner, President of Lewis & Clark College. “Free speech, public safety and an environment in which students can concentrate on their studies and in which they can advance their growth.”