The Plan of the House


“Somehow, somebody managed to slip a word into the article on the subject of scholarship, and that terrible word was censorship. What this means (in Hungarian) is that not a single word can be printed without prior investigation and approval by the censors… But by God, I am confident that we shall never endorse this as our law… And you should all be aware that anyone who is obstructing it in any way today has evil intentions, and likes to do evil; for why would anyone be afraid, if he had good intentions?”, Mihály Táncsics wrote in the introduction to his book Népkönyve (People’s Book) published in Leipzig in 1846.

By then several of his books had been banned and destroyed, including one he wrote on German grammar, which was peppered with sample phrases chastising serfdom and the feudal system. Nor did Népkönyv (People’s Book), a work advocating the emancipation of serfs and equality before the law, fare any better with the authorities. Táncsics was arrested and imprisoned in Buda Castle in March 1847. He was still awaiting sentence when the revolutionary youth set him free on that fateful day of March 15, 1848.

Born into a family of serfs, Táncsics, who was the author of the unsigned pamphlet Sajtószabadságról nézetei egy rabnak (A Prisoner’s Views on the Freedom of the Press, published in 1843), belonged to the radical/plebeian wing of the reform movement. He remained faithful to his principles even after the 1848 Revolution had ended in victory. As a representative, he demanded the extension of the emancipation of serfs, full enfranchisement and the abolition of all kinds of privileges. His newspaper, Munkások újságja (Workers’ Newspaper) elicited the disapproval of the new government: in the autumn of 1848 the paper was banned and all copies were destroyed. After the defeat in the War of Independence he went into hiding for more than ten years. Following his arrest in 1860 he was sentenced to prison for fifteen years. He was sent back to the same prison in which he had been held in 1847-1848. He was only released after the Compromise of 1867. As a result of an untreated eye-infection he went almost completely blind. He died in 1884.

As a political thinker, Táncsics was not as farsighted as Eötvös or Széchenyi; as a politician he was not as influential as Kossuth; and as a literary writer he was also found wanting in comparison to the greatest. Yet, as far as the freedom of the press is concerned, this lowborn man of unshakable conviction became the emblematic figure in the fight against censorship.

Up in Buda Castle, in a street that now bears Táncsics’ name, the building in which Táncsics was once held prisoner is still standing. Popularly known as “Táncsics’ prison”, it came into the possession of the United States government after 1945, as part of Hungary’s war reparations. Maintained by the American Embassy, the building, along with the powder magazine and the small park behind it, remained closed to the Hungarian public for decades. After the democratic transition the idea circulated that this great historical monument, which had been one of the most important locations in the history of the 1848 Revolution in Pest-Buda, should be restored to the Hungarian people. The agreement between the governments of Hungary and the United States of America about exchanging two apartment buildings standing next the American Embassy in Szabadság Square for “Táncsics’ prison” was finalized in the autumn of 2006, during George W. Bush’s Budapest visit.

Freedom of speech was the central demand of the participants of the 1848 Revolution. This is why we believe that in the search for a worthy function for this building, the best decision would be to dedicate it to the idea of freedom of speech, one of the fundamental values of a democratic establishment based on the rule of the law, along with its related freedoms: information rights. The building, which can accommodate a large audience, could be used as an interactive museum and a forum for debates, a platform for cultural and educational programs, a venue for demonstrating and propagating the issues surrounding information rights, a historical monument and a location for discussions on current affairs. In the following we shall make our case in support of this proposal.

Why Do We Need the House?

Ever since the Renaissance, the demand for free speech, i.e. the abolition of censorship by state and church authorities, has ranked high on the agenda of all those fighting for freedom. Bourgeois development and the birth of modern democracies in Europe have been inseparable from the fight against censorship and the campaign for constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. Today there is not a single democratic state where freedom of speech and the press is not a revered constitutional right. The individual freedoms – of expression, religious faith and conscience, of the press and scholarly research, of access to public information and the other fundamental information rights – enjoy special protection in constitutional democracies for two reasons: on the one hand they are both the preconditions and the guarantees of self-expression, self-realization and the ability to lead a good life, and on the other they safeguard the survival of democracy and the operation of democratic institutions. There is an almost complete consensus on this in democratic states governed by the rule of the law.

If this is so, then why should we need an institution which focuses attention on the history, protection and practical problems of the freedom of speech and all the associated information rights? In numerous countries all over the world the practice of censorship continues unabated, with states constantly banning, stifling and prosecuting critical voices and views which dissent from official ideology or religious dogma. Even in those countries where censorship based on political or philosophical considerations has long been relegated to the scrapyard of history, we often find temporary setbacks in the realization of the freedom of speech and its relatives. These freedoms generate more conflicts than any other constitutional rights, and these conflicts are quite often between the freedoms themselves or with other constitutional rights. In addition to the interests of the authorities, the implementation of the freedom of speech can severely damage the comfort, dignity, individual or communal identity of various persons and social, ethnic or religious groups. To illustrate this, we need only list the issues which currently generate the greatest animosity:

  • the freedom of speech versus the right to privacy / the right to one’s good name versus the right to the protection of personal information;
  • the conflict between hate speech, racist or fascist speech and the protection of the dignity of individuals and the groups;
  • access to public information and documents versus data protection, state and business secrets;
  • the freedom of artistic expression versus cases of protest against and the banning of works of art in the name of public morality;
  • the publication of materials questioning the articles of faith of various religious groups or making fun their religious dogma versus the often violent demonstrations that they spark off.

These examples, as well as others, make it quite clear that the boundaries of the rights and legitimate limitations of free speech are far from self-evident, even in democratic societies. As Stanley Fish put it in one of his writings, there is in fact no such thing as free speech. It would only exist if it was completely irrelevant who was speaking, when he or she was speaking, and what was being said. However, these circumstances are precisely the ones that always matter, and this is why freedom of speech is so important for us.

Therefore, inherent in the idea of free speech is the paradox that without its limitations it cannot be interpreted. Every society, even the most liberal one, sets certain limits on the extent of this freedom. However, the application of legitimate limitations could easily lead to illegitimate restrictions on free speech in the context of a given country, political culture, public opinion and judicial practices. As for the political authorities, they are, always and everywhere, bent on taking back as much from the scope of free speech as the given society will permit them to take. For this reason, freedom of speech needs to be protected even in democratic political establishments.

The scope of these constitutional rights needs continuous reinterpretation. Its relationship with the other rights has to be redefined again and again. We must find a way of addressing the conflicts that constantly arise in the process of implementation at theoretical, legal and practical levels, without losing the essence. The continuously changing relationship between free speech and the other constitutional rights and fundamental values is one of the most exciting problems.

But this is not the only reason why the history of free speech cannot be seen as a closed chapter. This history has, from the very beginning, been intertwined with developments in the production and dissemination of information, in terms of both technical instruments and social forms. The spread of literacy, the invention of the printing press, telecommunication technology, radio and television, the advent of computer networks and the Internet, all started new chapters in the history of the freedom of speech. States and communities had to react both to the arrival of new technologies and to the subsequent changes in regulations concerning intellectual property rights. In the face of the suspicion that usually accompanies the arrival of any new technology, each new form of expression had to fight its own war of liberation, either with the state bureaucracy’s over-zealous attempts to regulate or with renewed attempts to broaden the scope of censorship. We have no reason to assume that progress in the field of information technologies has now come to an end. This in turn implies that further advances in the field will probably generate further conflicts, further suspicions and further anxieties, as well as more gut-reaction attempts to regulate and more earnest efforts to liberate. On the basis of all these considerations, we are of the opinion that the House of Free Speech might be an exciting, spiritually inspirational enterprise, which may turn out to be very useful from the viewpoint of maintaining and revitalizing democratic public life.

The Structure and the Functions of the House

The establishment of the House will only make a difference if its message reaches a broader audience, if this message is delivered in a way that renders these abstract concepts in a straightforward language that is comprehensible to the general public, and if it can accommodate different narratives. Therefore, it is not an academic institution that we are campaigning for, even though we do not exclude the possibility that the House will one day become the forum of current professional, theoretical or public policy debates on free speech and related issues. Nevertheless, precisely in the interest of facilitating frank and open professional debates, we do exclude the possibility of allowing the House to become a platform for political movements and parties, along the lines of a 21st-century Jurta Theatre.  In our view, having entered its third decade the new Hungarian democracy needs such a forum, such a public institution to fill this role.

We find it important to emphasize that, regardless of the fact that the House would be an institution to be created by the Hungarian political community, its interests would not be limited to Hungarian issues. The issue of free speech is a universal affair, which has a direct bearing on international relations and the human condition of the world. The last decade in the history of the Soviet era, along with the quiet revolutions that took place in Central and Eastern Europe precisely twenty years ago, has shown that the fight against censorship can act as a catalyst for historical events that can change the world. By establishing and maintaining the House, the Republic of Hungary and its citizens could provide a resounding declaration of their commitment to the political and moral values of democratic government. At this particular moment in history, when these values are being questioned regularly and openly, with even the advocates of these ideas occasionally wavering, not only in our country and in our immediate neighborhood but also in countries that have been the strongholds of liberal democracy, the establishment of such a House would itself convey an important message.

The core material of the House would consist of a small historical collection of great symbolic importance, which would present the birth of the idea of free speech, along with its history at home and abroad, with special emphasis  on the history of censorship, on the evolution of the law, on the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and on the fight against censorship in Hungary, in the rest of Europe and throughout the world right up to the end of the twentieth century, in the form of an interactive exhibition presented in virtual space. Through a detailed documentation and analysis of the most momentous developments in North-American history, which were crucially important from the viewpoint of the history of free speech in Hungary and Europe, the exhibition would illustrate the way in which the principle of free speech became one of the most important constitutional freedoms in the course of its five-hundred-year development through a number of conflicts and struggles, successes and setbacks. Arranged around this historical core, there would be a current issues section of the exhibition, following and documenting the latest developments in freedom of speech and related issues, presented in a matrix-like form that would continuously change and expand.  This section would deal with the current problems of free speech and the related information rights, along with the relationship between democratic values and the rule of law, the legitimate and illegitimate forms of curtailing these rights, the characteristic examples of direct and indirect political and social limitations and pressure, and the latest developments related to them, by analyzing the international issues and events that have “made the biggest splash” within and outside Hungary.

However, the House is meant to be more than just a museum and a historical monument. It is also intended to provide a forum for conferences, seminars and professional gatherings. Besides serving as a venue for legal experts, sociologists, political scientists and historians, the House would also welcome a broader audience: civil societies, journalists and non-specialists alike. The House could organize conferences, debates and gatherings on its own accord, and it could also act as a host venue for programs initiated by other organizations.

One of the most important functions of the House would be the organization of educational programs for secondary, college and university students on the historical, legal and communicational aspects of free speech and the related information rights. In addition to presenting case studies, limitations and controversial issues related to the freedom of speech and related rights, we would also like to facilitate constructive training in ways to practice them. With the engagement of teachers, we would like to organize interactive exercises and events, in the course of which students could reenact famous historical events, thus discovering the arguments and counter-arguments advanced by the actors of the period in question. Alternatively, they could take part in discussions on current problems and conflicts, making their case either for or against in a given controversy, or writing reports or commentaries on the press coverage of past cases. In this way, the success of the House would primarily depend on the younger generation, who could take advantage of the interesting, interactive methods of alternative education. Other key elements in the House’s success would be the engagement of teachers, media attention on various events, while visits by the interested public and the tourists could provide a steady background for these activities.

To promote “freedom of expression”, the House could occasionally serve as a host venue for art events, dance and musical performances and exhibitions, without actually aspiring to compete with institutions offering cultural programs. It could provide a platform for debates on the issues of freedom of conscience and academic freedom. It could organize or host exhibitions about related topics on a regular basis. Some of its exhibitions and programs could travel to other locations. The task of new developing programs and expanding the range of events would fall on the current management team, in accordance with the spirit, mission and actual demands of the House. The House may house a public collection of the theme, complete with its own archive, library and research rooms. Finally, other countries should be invited to adopt the concept of the House.

What is Needed for the Practical Realization of the Idea?

Rather than the József Kaszárnya (Joseph Barracks), the actual prison building looking onto the street, the edifice that we have picked as the prospective site for the House of Free Speech is the modest building, once used as a powder magazine, standing in the garden behind it. The beautiful garden looking down on the Danube could also be used as a venue for certain public events.  The success of the project hinges on two basic preconditions: one is an independent and competent management team aided by a highly professional advisory body, all free from any political interference, and the other is a suitable infrastructure established and operated on the basis of long-term financial security. In view of these preconditions, there are two feasible ways to proceed in the creation and maintenance of the House of Free Speech.

One of the two possible models envisages the running of the House under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture in the form of either a public benefit corporation or a public foundation, oras a public collection. These three forms would all offer protection against particular interests and at the same time could guarantee continuity in the functioning and management of the House, which, as seen from the above, would obviously change and expand as time passes, with regard to content, program and profile alike. The House would form a separate budgetary entity within the institutional network of the Ministry. In line with the established practice in the case of cultural institutions, applicants would have to submit a detailed business plan for a duration of five years, renewable after each period. The competition entries would be evaluated by a body established for this purpose. The public-collection format has only one drawback, namely that at present the House is not in possession of a collection of historical importance, nor does it have a specific area of interest. However, this constitutes a problem that can be overcome with a little goodwill. Today, Hungary has neither a museum nor a public collection that specializes in the history of the Hungarian press, censorship and freedom of speech, regardless of the fact that a vast number of objects and documents exist, scattered among various public collections, which are related to the topic. It is a matter of judgment whether the idea of setting up a national collection within the House of Free Speech is useful from the viewpoint of preserving, classifying and collecting such materials.

According to the other model, the House of Free Speech – although intended for the public’s benefit in the noblest sense of the word – would be financed not by taxpayers’ money but by donations from private individuals and organizations.  Here, too, the installation of a highly professional management team independent of party politics and investors’ interests would be an indispensable precondition of the House’s operation for the benefit of the public, free from any unlawful interference. However, with this model we would have to find specific guarantees for the establishment of long-term financial security. OSA would be willing to support the model based on civilian initiative and private funding with a donation of HUF 1,000,000 (not from OSA’s own budget).

Whichever model is chosen, OSA offers to donate copies of the relevant documents in its collection, along with the equipment and other material documents of Eastern-European samizdat publication (depending on the owners’ agreement). The House could also accommodate the archive, the library and the researchers’ room, which would have a team of highly qualified experts to carry out its tasks, in line with the relevant legal and professional requirements.

Let’s Have a Public Debate on the Utilization of “Táncsics’ Prison”!

The Open Society Archives of Budapest, which presents the above concept for the House, is itself  campaigning for the full implementation of one particular branch of information rights, namely the freedom of research and the guarantee of free access to archived documents. OSA was one of the originators of both the Budapest Initiative of Free Access and the international organization Open Document Format, which helped launch the campaign for free access. As the holder of one of the largest archives of Cold War documents and samizdats, OSA maintains a collection that includes numerous historical documents related to the above questions and problems. For this reason, we would like to make it absolutely clear that our proposal to establish a new institution is not an underhand attempt to enlarge our range of activities.

Our aim in publishing this concept has been to propose a proper utilization for a historical building and park, which is about to be returned to Hungarian public ownership, or at least to start a public debate on one possible plan for its utilization. To this end, we have decided to engage all interested individuals and organizations by making this document, together with the associated technical papers, accessible to the public on OSA’s official webpage, in the hope that the concept of the House will emerge from such a public debate. At the end of the public debate, after having agreed on a generally acceptable concept, we shall ask all professional and civil organizations to rally behind the initiative in order to find the most appropriate way of establishing and running the House.

Comments (1)
1 Friday, 13 March 2009 16:49
Jeles Petra

Jómagam egyre több olyan fiatallal veszem fel a kapcsolatot, akik GONDOLKOZNAK, szeretném azt hinni, hogy egyre több hasonló mentalitású ember válik ki a szürke tömegből és válik a magyarság meghatározó táborává. Közös jellemzőnk, hogy politikai, vallási, nemzetiségi falak nem korlátozzák az érintkezést és egyfajta kollektív tudatban sűrűsödik össze a mondanivalónk. Csodálatra méltó módon segít megélni mindennapjainkat, fejleszti személyiségünket és empatikus készségünket. A kérésem az lenne, hogy ne kifejezetten az alsóbb korosztály részére alapuljon meg a szervezet, mivel azok a középkorúak jelenleg a legveszélyeztettebbek, akik egyfajta üvegbúra alatt vegetálnak. Arra gondolok itt, hogy lehetne ez kortól független megmozdulás.

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