Ian McEwan gives inspiring talk about freedom of speech at university graduation

'Free speech was, it is and always will be, under attack'

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The Independent Online

Ian McEwan has given a rousing speech during a graduation ceremony, calling for outgoing students to protect freedom of speech.

Speaking at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, the Atonement author said that free speech was under attack, and that people should defend even opinions they believed to be offensive.

During the talk, McEwan defended the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which pokes fun at religions including Islam and Christianity. In January, Islamist extremists forced their way into the office and opened fire, killing eight journalists. The magazine is still being printed.

McEwan also quoted Voltaire's famous phrase: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."


Here are highlights from his barnstorming speech:

"I would like to share a few thoughts with you about free speech... the life blood, the essential condition of the liberal education you’ve just received. Let’s begin on a positive note: there is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history...

"And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.

A man buys a copy of the new edition of Charlie Hebdo magazine

"But free speech was, it is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the centre. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around...

"Paradoxically, it’s all the more important to be vigilant for free expression wherever it flourishes... Which is why it has been so puzzling lately, when we saw scores of American writers publicly disassociating themselves from a PEN gala to honour the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech.

"What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy. The magazine has been scathing about racism. It’s also scathing about organised religion and politicians and it might not be to your taste – but that’s when you should remember your Voltaire...

"I hope you use your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward - sometimes inconvenient and even offensive - culture of freedom of expression we have."