The 2021-22 series focused on how freedom of Speech and academic freedoms have attracted renewed public and political interest. Debates often emphasise the importance of freedom of speech to democracy and democratic freedoms, while international organisations continue to monitor censorship and the free press across the world. Key questions continue to exercise scholars, politicians, the press and the public: should there be limits to freedom of speech? How should freedom of speech be recognised in the law? What are the implications for freedom of speech posed by new technologies and digital platforms? What are the barriers to having multiple voices heard, respected and acknowledged, now and in the past? How do we have open debates in polemical times?  

Speaking Freely explored the legal, cultural and historical dimensions of these questions, both within the UK and internationally. The series brings together experts from across the world and from different sectors to debate and discuss these critical issues.

Session 1: Speaking Freely: Finding Words

19 January 2022

This session was collaboratively chaired by Katherine Harloe, Director of the Institute of Classical Studies and Claire Langhamer, Director of the Institute of Historical Research. Audience questions and comments will be particularly welcome.

This online panel conversation will examine the importance of opportunities to speak freely and be heard across time. It will consider the human and social capacities that underpin such freedom, as well as the material conditions that can hinder or enable its exercise. It takes both a historical and a contemporary perspective, exploring the role of archives in facilitating expression across time, and showcasing contemporary arts and humanities projects that empower individuals and groups to find words. The event will pay particular attention to marginalized groups who may find it difficult to speak, or whose voices may not be recognized, valued or recorded, such as refugees, children and prisoners. We will address the importance of finding words for individuals and for society and think critically about who gets to speak and who doesn't.

The participants included:

  • Dave Carey, Michael Bossisse and Paul Fricker from the pioneering theatre company, Chickenshed, who will explain how they bring together people of all ages and from all backgrounds to produce theatre that celebrates diversity and inspires positive change through expression.
  • Arlene Holmes-Henderson and Tom Wright of the multi-disciplinary Speaking Citizens project which brings together educators and researchers to promote citizenship and education through talk. They will focus particularly on the role of oracy in schools.
  • Suzanne Rose, education and outreach officer at the Mass Observation Archive who will talk about the Beyond Boxes Project - a partnership with Blind Veterans UK, the Brighton Housing Trust and HMP Lewes, which has developed new ways for participants to share their life experiences. It has also addressed the barriers that prevent people from engaging with, and contributing to, archives of everyday life. 

Session 2: Freedom of Expression and Human Rights 

16 February 2022

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, in today’s world there are many governments and those wielding power who find many ways to obstruct and curtail it. This session will explore the application of international human rights law to the regulation of freedom of speech online and the impact of forthcoming UK law reforms on freedom of speech online and in the context of environmental protests.  

Keynote Speaker: Dr Sejal Parmar

Session 3: Writing Freely

16 March 2022

Drawing on expertise and experiences from around the world, this roundtable discussion explores the power of literary writing to contribute to and lead oppositional movements and initiatives against political oppression. In movements as diverse as the Arab Spring and resistance against authoritarianism in Nicaragua, examples of literary writing have managed to avoid censorship, expressed resistance in subtle but powerful ways and acted as a coalescing force to galvanise revolt. For refugees from oppressive regimes, too, writing has become a means to continue oppositional activities and to gather forces of resistance. In many cases, this has led to unexpected alliances, strengthening the lateral networks of resistance across national and geographical borders.

Addressing these issues in an exchange of experiences over a wide geographical range, this event allows us to draw out a transnational and cross-cultural understanding of what ‘writing freely’ means.

Confirmed speakers:

  • Malu Halasa (co-editor of Syria Speaks)  
    Malu Halasa is an author, editor and exhibition curator specializing in the Middle East. She is co-editor of a number of anthologies, including Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (2014). Her novel, Mother of All Pigs (2017), depicts life in Jordan; and her exhibitions include Culture In Defiance, on the art of the Syrian uprising (for the Prince Claus Fund Gallery, Amsterdam).
  • Anna-Louise Milne (academic, University of London’s Institute in Paris ) 
    Anna-Louise Milne is a Professor at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP).. Her research focuses on comparative literature, cultural translation and contemporary migration studies. She is one of the co-founders of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression.
  • Sergio Ramírez (author, Nicaragua) 
    Sergio Ramírez is an acclaimed Nicaraguan author who received the Premio Cervantes in 2017. He is the founder of the literary festival Centroamérica Cuenta. Sergio was part of the junta that led Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution and Vice-President of Nicaragua between 1984 and 1990. In 2021, censorship of his latest novel and charges against him by Nicaraguan authorities led him into exile.

The panel will be chaired by Daniel Gorman​, Director of English PEN. Before taking up this post in 2019, he was Executive Director of Shubbak , Europe’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture. Daniel is also a co-founder of Highlight Arts, who have organised UK-based international arts festivals and events since 2007 including projects working with writers in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Session 4: Museums, Libraries and Soft Power 

18 May 2022

Published in March 2021, the UK government’s Integrated Review, Global Britain in a competitive age, claims that the UK is a ‘soft power superpower’. The review highlights the country’s cultural and academic institutions as one of its soft power strengths. It also identifies shifts in the soft power landscape, indicating that ‘the UK’s soft power cannot be taken for granted.’  Other commentary suggests that the UK’s soft power is in fact waning, undermined by Brexit and other factors: for example, in a British Council survey of 2020 over young people in 19 member states of the G20 group, perceptions of the UK in Europe had ‘declined sharply in the last two years’. 
Cultural and academic institutions have traditionally been seen as trusted, impartial voices at home and abroad even when the government’s actions are seen as unwise or inconsistent. This is echoed in the 2021 review: 
The source of much of the UK’s soft power lies beyond the ownership of government - an independence from state direction that is essential to its influence.
This panel asks whether government policy, spending priorities, long-term planning, and recent actions threaten to weaken the UK’s soft power, or have already done so? In particular, whether some of the recent appointments to the boards and executive positions of cultural institutions, seen by many commentators as attempts to undermine their independence from government, also undermine their ability to speak out boldly in defence of the role of cultural and creative industries in an open, democratic society?


Ruth Ur, the Berlin-based founder of urKultur and Director of the German Friends of Yad Vashem. Ruth has over 20 years' international experience initiating and running flagship cultural projects. She held a number of senior leadership positions at the British Council, including postings to Israel (2003-06) and Turkey (2007-10) and, as Director of the UK/India Year of Culture in 2017, Ruth curated the first-ever artwork to cover the entire façade of Buckingham Palace. Ruth has worked in some of the world's most politically challenging environments, including North Africa during the Arab Spring and South Sudan.

Jonathan McClory, Partner at Sanctuary Counsel, an advisory firm in London, and a globally recognized expert on soft power, public diplomacy and place branding. Before joining Sanctuary Counsel, Jonathan was General Manager for Asia at Portland, where he built up and oversaw the company’s work across Asia Pacific from Singapore. Before working in the private sector, Jonathan was based at the Institute for Government, where he developed the world's first composite index for measuring the soft power of countries. This earlier work informed his development of The Soft Power 30, an annual study that has been widely used as a benchmark by foreign ministries across the globe.

Professor Margot Finn, FBA, Professor of Modern History at UCL. Margot’s research ranges from Victorian popular politics to British colonial and imperial relations, with an emphasis on the family, material culture and transnational encounters. Margot served as President of the Royal Historical Society from 2016-20, where she co-authored reports on race/ethnicity, gender, and LGBT+ equality. She also served on the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 2012 to 2018.

This session will be chaired by Clare Lees, Director of the Institute of English Studies, Catriona Cannon, Senate House Librarian and Programme Director, and Bill Sherman, Director of The Warburg Institute.