How relevant can the issue of freedom of speech possibly be in a liberal, western, 21st-century democracy? Can one really expect to spark the controversy and the excitement necessary to make young people attend a day-long event centered around this issue? The recent German Regional Conference, taking place in Heidelberg on October 29, proves that this is by no means impossible.
Around 300 students, professionals and even interested retirees gathered on this day to listen to speakers such as the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, YouTube celeb Julie Borowski, the Hungarian politician Zoltán Kész (“The first and only libertarian MP in Budapest”, as he jokingly claims to be) or the German publicist Henryk M. Broder. Free speech and democracy – my opinion, your problem? was the slogan the organizers chose for this conference. To highlight that they really meant it, they provocatively spread flyers featuring a quote by a notorious German anti-Semite, according to whom “the crimes against the European Jews have been massively exaggerated.” While his case can rightly be viewed as extreme (and his opinion as truly sick), Julie Borowski correctly remarked that “we don’t have freedom of speech to talk about the weather, but about controversial issues!”. And this we did.
After a few introductory words by the former CEO of the SRH Holding (a leading German provider of private educational and health-care services), the opening speech was delivered by Prof Martin Rhonheimer of the Austrian Institute of Economics and Social Philosophy. Drawing from his vast knowledge of history and philosophy, he introduced the attendees to the concept of free speech in the European tradition. Good news for those who considered this as too highbrow: The next speaker, Kolja Zydatiss, made it easier to follow by addressing the topic of hate speech. To what extent should or may the government intervene to prevent people from insulting, denigrating, harassing or threatening others verbally, especially on social networks?Heidelberg IV
Contrary to last year, the organizers decided to make this conference more interactive than it had previously been. To this end, we added a number of workshops and roundtables; from speedfriending and an art exhibition, to discussions about anarchy or the economics of science fiction. Personally, I believe that people really valued this a lot – it gave them an even better chance to mingle and connect with the other attendees and get to know some of the speakers personally.
After lunch break, Jan Mücke of the German Tobacco Association warned the audience of the dangers of an ever-growing Nanny State. This profoundly modern concept, according to which it is right and proper for government officials to intrude into the very inner core of a citizen’s private sphere, has led the legislative branch to heavily tax, regulate and even outlaw certain substances deemed “dangerous”. We have come a long way from the active and responsible consumer to a point where citizens are viewed as being in bitter need of constant surveillance.
The lecture hall filled up more and more – we should reach 300 visitors this day – as the highlights of the conference were approaching. The first of them was a panel discussion on religion, freedom and tolerance. One atheist – Matthias Heitmann – and three believers of the three book religions – Mustafa Akyol, Clemens Schneider and Achim Doerfer – had surprisingly little disagreement about whether religions are inherently violent or a force of peace. Most likely, it is neither – and investigating their respective holy books or the behaviour of a larger part of its adherents won’t give us a definite answer.
While this panel already included some aspects and examples from foreign countries, we went full international with the debate staged afterwards. Julie Borowski, Zoltán Kész and again Mustafa Akyol were invited to talk about the state of freedom of speech in their home countries. Their reports didn’t leave much hope for the increasingly-authoritarian states of Hungary and Turkey, although they warned the audience not to fall into despair. After all, the election of the independent candidate Kész in a district controlled by Victor Orban’s Fidesz Party gives reasons for hope.
Before people went off for the social to make new friends and praise Bacchus, we had one final interview with famous German journalist Henryk Broder. It was a perfect closure for a tremendously interesting conference, both entertaining and witty, but also showcasing his qualities as a diligent observer of the German society. Needless to say that we can’t wait for the next conference to come!