Free Speech (2022) traces the history of this world-defining idea. It provides a soapbox for some of free speech’s greatest proponents and highlights key events that pushed the idea forward from ancient times to the present. Offering an evenhanded treatment of the costs and benefits of free speech throughout history, it’s a powerful retort to all those forces that threaten to erode free speech today.
Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? The history of a simple yet powerful idea: free speech.
The Great Disruption
Seeds of Enlightenment
About the author
Table of Contents
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Video and Podcast
Political Science, Censorship, Politics, Social Sciences, Government, History, Sociology, Philosophy, Cultural
Who is it for?
- Passionate defenders of free speech who could use more argumentative ammunition
- Students preparing for campus debates on whether free speech should be limited
- Anyone on the left or right seeking insight into modern-day debates on free speech
What’s in it for me? The history of a simple yet powerful idea: free speech.
Historically speaking, we live in a golden age of free speech. Documents such as the United States Bill of Rights and the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights provide legal protection of free speech for much of the world. And, thanks to technological developments in media and the internet, speaking our mind and spreading our ideas is easier than ever before. We’re so used to speaking freely that we take it for granted, forgetting that for most of human history, this was not the norm.
We need to tread carefully because our right to free speech is far less secure than it may seem. Today, around the globe, censorship is actually on the rise. Outside of democracies, free speech is being eroded by a fatal mixture of authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and high-tech censorship. And even within liberal Western democracies, faith in free speech is waning. The negative side effects of this freedom are more visible than ever before – from disinformation to hate speech. This may be the reason that free speech is increasingly being viewed as a force for division and even a threat to democracy itself. And now there are constant calls on both the left and the right to rein it in before it’s too late.
But the idea that democracy can be saved by censoring free speech rests on very shaky historical ground. History is full of examples of authorities that thought they could limit free speech while still enjoying a free and just society – and failed. Censorship never marks the beginning of a free society, only its end.
By connecting current controversies about free speech to similar ones in the past, this summary hopes to demonstrate just how much humanity has gained from this simple idea – and just how much we stand to lose if it were to disappear.
For most of human history, speaking truth to power was not advisable. Judging from the records of ancient law codes that have managed to survive, most ancient civilizations protected the ruling elite from the speech of their inferiors rather than the other way around.
From ancient Egypt to ancient China, surviving moral codes explicitly prohibit speaking out against those of a higher station. Such prohibitions on speech were designed to preserve the rigid social hierarchies that existed in ancient societies, where those on top were often seen to rule by divine right.
All the more remarkable then that one society was able to buck the trend: a small city-state in ancient Greece called Athens. By the fifth century BCE, Athens shined like a beacon of free speech through the tyrannical fog of history. Free speech was baked into the city’s mode of government at its core. It was a democratic system where the citizens themselves – that is, freeborn men – were expected to propose, debate, and vote on the laws that governed them.
While the Athenians’ concept of democracy suffered from several major shortcomings by modern standards with the exclusion of women and enslaved people, it was still exceptionally egalitarian for its time.
Athenians enjoyed extensive protections for free speech. In political debates, citizens were free to criticize the state and even democracy itself. And, in Athens’ famous theater culture, no one – not even the gods – was spared from satire, as Aristophanes proved when he made Dionysus out to be a fool in his famous play The Frogs.
The Athenian leniency toward speech was responsible for its cultural success. The free discussion of ideas in Athens’ public agora allowed for a vibrant intellectual spirit to blossom. This period saw great advancements in philosophy, science, and medicine that would likely have been impossible under a more oppressive system.
However, even Athens had its limits. The charge of impiety – that is, profaning the sacred religious rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries – was a serious crime, punishable by death. That’s something that Athens’ most audacious thinker would discover the hard way.
If you were to wander the marketplace in Athens in the late fifth century BCE, chances are you’d find yourself accosted by a man with a peculiar limp, bulging frog-like eyes, and an upturned nose. He’d likely be barefoot, wearing the same robes he wore every day and used as a blanket at night. This bedraggled figure is Socrates, and he’s widely considered the founder of Western philosophy.
Socrates was notoriously annoying. He spent most of every day dragging prominent Athenians into verbal sparring matches, where he would lead them down logical dead ends and reveal their ignorance. Eventually, even tolerant Athenians became tired of this act.
At the ripe old age of 70, Socrates was indicted for the crime of impiety; he’d allegedly profaned the gods and corrupted the youth of Athens with his ideas. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking poisonous hemlock.
Historians have often debated why Athenians decided to execute Socrates so late in life, when he’d been speaking freely for decades. We may never know for sure, but it seems likely that a couple of coup attempts that had briefly overturned Athens’ democratic system in the preceding years had put its citizens on edge.
It’s possible that the fear of a resurgent antidemocratic movement rendered Athens’ citizens far less tolerant of dissent and spurred them to finally silence Socrates who could sometimes be critical of democracy.
If this is true, then the trial of Socrates reveals a valuable lesson about democracy that we moderns would do well to remember: in the name of protecting democratic values, the most important one of all – free speech – is often the first to be sacrificed.
Unfortunately, the ideals of free speech and democracy that characterized ancient Athens would wither in the following centuries – and wouldn’t be rediscovered again for another two thousand years.
With the rise of Rome and its subsequent Christianization, the spirit of free thought that had blossomed in parts of the ancient world was replaced by rigid religious orthodoxy in the medieval period.
Astoundingly, as much as 90 percent of ancient literary works have been lost over the intervening years. Some of them were actively censored and burned by the church. But most perished due to neglect and lack of interest caused by the overly dogmatic climate. It’s not for nothing that this period is called the “Dark Ages.”
However, the medieval period was not a blank space in history as many imagine. Despite widespread intolerance of heterodox ideas, important intellectual developments took place that would pave the way for centuries to come. Most importantly, new centers of inquiry and learning in the form of universities began to spring up across the Islamic world and Europe. Nourished by the ideas of ancient thinkers, these newly established houses of reason became hubs for ideas that would eventually challenge prevailing religious orthodoxy.
The Catholic Church was surprisingly tolerant of these developments. While heresy laws existed as far back as the Roman Empire, the church’s main strategy to combat it was persuasion, not persecution. But this had changed by the late eleventh century; with universities bringing pagan ideas back into vogue, the church’s quest to eradicate heretical ideas turned militant.
Starting from the twelfth century, the main tool the church used to tackle heresy was the Inquisition: a vast network of independent tribunals tasked with rooting out and punishing false belief. With the Inquisition’s magistrates serving as prosecutors, judges, and jury all rolled into one, these tribunals didn’t exactly live up to modern legal standards. While the church insisted the Inquisition was undertaken out of “love” for erring brothers, those found guilty were burned at the stake.
The swift eradication of heresy required an efficient procedure. Inquisitors, therefore, found it more productive to focus on entire communities rather than just individuals. Once the inquisitors rolled into town, they would first announce a grace period where people in the community were encouraged to come forward and confess their sins, or denounce others, in exchange for leniency.
Of course, the real consequence of this policy was to spread fear, causing people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, or to denounce neighbors who they had a grudge against.
Another interesting side effect of keeping tabs on such a huge number of people was that the inquisitors had to invent new ways of storing and sorting through that information. Over time, the Medieval Inquisition produced an enormous network of archives along with indexes to sift through the records. The Inquisition was effectively the first pan-European surveillance network.
So, while the Inquisition didn’t invent persecution – that’s an age-old game – what it did do was systematize it through a bureaucratic structure. This “machinery of persecution” should sound familiar, as it’s been revamped and recycled many times over the centuries by both religious and political regimes alike seeking to enforce their worldview.
It’s interesting to note that in the Islamic world during the same period, nothing like the Inquisition ever took place. And it’s not because the Islamic world was particularly tolerant. Rather, there was simply no central religious authority comparable to the Catholic Church that was capable of enforcing orthodoxy.
The lesson to draw here, then, is that the real threat to freedom of speech and thought is not orthodoxy per se, but rather a single orthodoxy gaining too much power. When power accumulates in the hands of a single authority, this authority is able to control information and enforce its view of the truth.
The Great Disruption
In the mid-fifteenth century, something happened that would eventually dislodge the Catholic Church’s grip over Europe. It all started when an industrious goldsmith by the name of Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press.
Few individuals have had so large an impact on world history as Gutenberg. From his workshop in Mainz, the printing press spread like wildfire. By the end of the century, there were 1,700 printing presses operating in cities across Europe from Lisbon to Kraków. In the span of only 50 years, these printers would produce more books than all the scribes of Europe had written in a millennium – and they were just warming up.
As book production skyrocketed, the price of books plummeted. A manuscript that had once cost the same as a vineyard could be picked up for the price of a loaf of bread. The upshot of this new affordability was that it rapidly increased access to the written word for huge swathes of the population. As a result, literacy rates began to shoot up, and economic growth and innovation soon followed.
But new technologies also bring new problems. Initially, Western rulers like the Habsburgs and Tudors embraced this new technology. The church even went so far as to christen it as a “divine” art. But they soon changed their tune when it became painfully apparent that printing had the potential to seriously disrupt the established order. It wouldn’t take long before the revolutionary power of the press would be showcased to its fullest when an opinionated monk called Martin Luther stepped onto the world stage.
In 1517 CE, Luther sent a letter to the archbishop of Mainz; it contained his now-famous list of 95 theses criticizing the Catholic Church. The Letter mainly criticized the practice of promising people a shorter stay in purgatory in exchange for a fee – a practice that Luther felt quite reasonably to be a scam. But he also went further, questioning the church’s legitimacy.
Luther was certainly not the first person to take aim at the church, but being born on the right side of the printing revolution, Luther had a leg up on the rest. The press picked up Luther’s ideas and, pretty soon, they spread like a sixteenth-century meme throughout Christendom. And so the reformation began.
Luther and the press were a match made in heaven (or, if you side with the church, in hell). It can actually be shown that the more printing presses a city had, the more likely they were to break from the Catholic Church and turn Protestant.
Both the church and state authorities attempted to push back, banning Luther’s works, but it was too little too late. Not even Luther himself could have stopped the reformation, which had a mind of its own.
But Luther could hardly have predicted the full consequences of what he had unleashed. By encouraging ordinary people to search out the truth for themselves, he inspired a slew of new religious sects. And the improved literacy rates among people who read the Bible also empowered them to read texts beyond scripture, laying the foundations for even more heterodox thinking.
In the end, even Luther himself tried to put the brakes on what he’d started. He stressed that good Christians ought to heed those sections of the Bible that emphasize respect for authority. He even, ironically, advocated for censorship of divergent Protestant sects.
Of course, in retrospect, it was naive of Luther to expect that after empowering citizens to read and democratizing the Bible, everyone would get in line. After all, if the pope doesn’t have the singular authority to determine the truth, why should a constipated German monk?
Luther was certainly not the only person in history to transition from champion of free speech when his own ideas were under threat, to persecutor of religious dissent once he had achieved power and influence. Luther’s situation speaks to the almost universal temptation to view free speech as a right for oneself but not for others. It’s a temptation that is perhaps embedded in human psychology, and it’s one we would do well to resist.
Seeds of Enlightenment
The aftermath of the Reformation was violent upheaval; once established authorities, both religious and political, were suddenly in turmoil. The chaos wrought by these warring factions did not exactly create a fertile environment for tolerance and free speech. Yet, despite this, by the seventeenth century CE, the first signs of a budding liberal society had taken root on a small patch of land in Northern Europe called the Dutch Republic.
The Dutch Republic came into existence in 1581 when the predominantly Protestant region of the Netherlands revolted against the Catholic Habsburg empire and declared independence. Over the following centuries, the republic would create a name for itself as a safe haven of free thought and freedom of the press, and establish itself as Europe’s printing house.
The reason tolerance took such a hold here had to do with the decentralized nature of the republic and the large diversity of religious sects living within its borders. After decades of book burnings and human immolation by the Catholic-led Inquisition, the Dutch were naturally suspicious of centralized authority, and each Dutch province was allowed to operate autonomously. As a result, any coordinated attempt to enforce censorship would have been impractical. What’s more, its location on the sea and contact with foreign places through trade contributed to a vibrant cosmopolitan culture where heterodox ideas flourished side by side.
Among those who sought refuge from persecution in the Dutch Republic were a great many freethinkers, scientists, and philosophers. These included René Descartes, who is recognized as the founder of the modern philosophical tradition, as well as John Locke, whose work helped influence the writing of the American Declaration of Independence.
Both Descartes and Locke were avowed Christians. Nevertheless, both of them, in their philosophies, did much to advance a purely mechanical picture of the world, which would later define the scientific worldview.
In the 1660s, the leader of a group of radical free thinkers by the name of Baruch Spinoza was ready to take this idea to the next level. Spinoza had already been excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his “abominable” and “monstrous” heresies. Judging from his published work, it’s not hard to see why. In one work, he wrote a vehement rebuke of religious fanaticism; in others, he denied the immortality of the soul and claimed scripture to be the mere work of humans.
Aside from his obvious atheism, Spinoza also penned a high number of other ideas that should sound strikingly familiar to us moderns. He argued that free speech is actually a precondition rather than a threat to peace and social harmony. He distinguished between speech and action, and argued that only action should be regulated by the state. And he claimed that the purpose of the state should be to preserve the liberty of its subjects.
Spinoza’s ideas, and especially his unapologetic rejection of religious dogma, earned him notoriety as a provocateur and dangerous radical. His books became some of the most hated and prohibited works of his time, both in the Dutch Republic and across Europe.
But this couldn’t stop the spread of his materialist way of thinking. Despite strict censorship, an underground network of printing presses kept his books in circulation – kind of like the dark web of the seventeenth century. This black market for prohibited texts helped to nourish a growing number of European freethinkers.
The gradual rise of secular, materialist worldviews offered by Spinoza and others helped to usher in a more religiously tolerant society in the eighteenth century. By this time, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing. And, in most European countries, the project of eradicating heresy fell out of favor. In the Enlightenment period, the question was no longer which orthodoxy was the right one, but whether to believe in any orthodoxy at all.
Historians of the Enlightenment have never been able to agree exactly on how to define it. But one thing they can agree on is this: all Enlightenment thinking was animated by a spirit of free and open discussion so that previously unquestioned dogma could be held up to the skeptical light of reason.
The legacy of the Enlightenment can still be felt today. We’ve inherited its spirit of curiosity and reason in the form of the scientific method. And we’ve institutionalized its sense of freedom and tolerance to foreign ideas in the constitutions of our liberal democracies.
But we need to stay vigilant. History shows that progress doesn’t always take a direct path. The freedoms we enjoy now are always at risk of entropy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a liberal democracy has fallen back into tyranny.
A century ago, Germany witnessed exactly that. Wedged between an authoritarian monarchy on one side and a totalitarian dictatorship on the other, the Weimar period of German history was a short-lived, but nevertheless remarkable, interlude of freedom and democracy.
Admittedly, it was a democracy built on shaky foundations. Rising out of the ashes of defeat in the First World War, it was a period plagued by economic instability and political violence. Between 1918 and 1923, it experienced no fewer than five coup attempts and over 350 assassinations by right-wing extremists.
But, despite this, it was also a relative golden age of free thought and liberty – and it proved fertile ground for great advances in science and culture. The Weimar period produced nine Nobel Prize winners, including the Jewish Albert Einstein. It was also a period of major gains for women, who were granted the vote and equal rights.
But it wasn’t to last. Some people have argued that the Weimar Republic’s tolerance of free speech was partly responsible for its demise. According to the argument, if only the republic had done more to silence right-wing speech and propaganda, then its usurpation by the Nazis and all the horrors they inflicted could have been avoided. Many commentators today still appeal to this logic to justify censorship of radical ideas.
But, as we’ll see, this reasoning is misguided for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Weimar authorities actually did try to silence Hitler and his supporters. They banned him from making speeches, and they censored newspapers that carried his messages. But often, all they managed to achieve was to increase interest and sympathy for Hitler, who presented himself as the innocent victim of state repression. In the end, Hitler himself concluded that the prohibitions on him boosted his popularity overall.
Even though free speech was enshrined in the Weimar constitution, it was able to censor Hitler and other groups it deemed too radical thanks to a fatal loophole. Article 48 of the constitution stipulated that citizens’ fundamental rights could be suspended in the event of a serious threat to public order. This emergency law was intended to protect the democratic government. But what it actually did, once the Nazis came to power, was hand them legal recourse to silence all dissent and strangle the very system it was supposed to uphold.
The first voices to be shut down were the communists and liberal left, who were banned from publishing their newspapers and holding assemblies. Initially, the political right was on board with this development, but they soon regretted their support when the Nazis turned on them, too. One by one, every other political party was forced to dissolve. In just six months, Hitler transformed Germany from a vibrant democracy into a one-party dictatorship.
It would be too reductionist to say that Germany’s collapse into totalitarianism was caused solely by the Weimar Republic’s policy of censorship. It’s nevertheless informative to consider just how counterproductive it was to censor dangerous ideas – and how it actually paved the way for someone to come along and abolish free speech entirely.
The failure of the Weimar republic to prevent the rise of fascism through censorship should give pause to us today. Those voices that demand limits to free speech in order to suppress dangerous ideas and organized hate may be doing more to support them than they think.
In the Weimar period, the only way you could really get your voice out there was by speaking on the radio or publishing a newspaper, which obviously wasn’t accessible to everyone. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, even the most marginalized members of society are empowered to speak.
Just as the printing press made information accessible to new groups of people, so too, has the internet connected people and ideas like never before. And, like the printing press, the internet has been just as disruptive.
Owing to its ability to bypass traditional forms of censorship, the internet has been able to penetrate oppressive regimes and provide information and power to people previously left in the dark. All over the world, citizens were suddenly unmuted, no longer merely passive recipients of propaganda. In short, the internet promised to bring about a new golden age of free speech; it professed to serve as a sort of cybernetic version of the Greek agora.
Nothing captured this optimism better than the Arab Spring. In 2010, when a Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against his government, the horrific image was caught on camera and soon went viral across the internet. This sparked mass protests, and within a month, Tunisia’s dictator fled the country. Shortly after, several other North African and Middle Eastern states were aflame with public protests, all fueled by social media, which spread ideas and served as a highly effective platform for organizing.
Yet the Arab Spring was not an unequivocal success, as it provoked cornered dictators to fight back. Of all the countries that participated in the Arab Spring, only Tunisia had a happy ending. The others either declined into civil war or suffered even more stifling repression. What’s more, the Arab Spring prompted other authoritarian regimes, such as China and Russia, to ramp up censorship of the web.
It might have been inevitable that regimes whose power was threatened by the internet would invest in ways of controlling it. But what’s more surprising is that even within liberal democracies, calls for censorship are growing.
Now that the internet’s honeymoon period is over, its dark side has become far more visible. Hate speech, online abuse, and conspiracy theories are just some of the ills that politicians and journalists have been sounding the alarm about. Some have gone as far as to declare an “epistemic crisis,” a crisis of truth.
Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are already deleting disinformation by using algorithms that automatically target sensitive words and images. Although these steps to eradicate harmful speech may be well-intentioned, they nevertheless represent a worrying trend.
For one thing, it gives states and tech companies the power to determine what’s true and what isn’t. What’s more, it’s not even clear that censorship is an effective remedy to the problem. One 2017 study showed that extremism is exacerbated by intense public repression, which provokes greater hostility and polarization. Censoring people online also prevents the possibility of offering reasoned counterpoints and discussion, which some studies suggest can be effective at tempering radical viewpoints.
It just goes to show that the solution to intolerant free speech may simply be even more free speech. We shouldn’t allow the dark side of free speech to obscure the many positives it can bring.
Still, even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has admitted that the status quo is untenable. He’s currently working on a solution to democratize the web again and take it back from the tech companies that have commercialized it.
If history has anything to say, Berners-Lee is on the right track. A less centralized internet is likely to be one that’s much harder to censor and thus more friendly to free speech.
About the author
Jacob Mchangama is the founder and director of the Danish think tank Justitia and has won many awards for his work promoting free speech and human rights. He’s the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, and he’s also published work on the subject of free speech for major publications including the Economist, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.
Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia and the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. His writing on free speech has appeared in the Economist, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia and the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. His writing and commentary on free speech have appeared in global media and many languages around the world including the Economist, the Washington Post, WSJ Europe, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, NPR, Slate.fr, Indian Express, Raseef, BBC World, France24, Deutsche Welle, El Pais and many other outlets. In 2016 Jacob was a Marshal Memorial Fellow and from 2018 to 2020 he was a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in 2018 he was a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression Center in New York. Jacob has won numerous prizes and awards for his work and commitment to free speech and human rights. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Table of Contents
1 Ancient Beginnings
2 The Not-So-Dark Ages: Inquiry and Inquisition in Medieval Islam and Europe
3 The Great Disruption: Luther, Gutenberg, and the Viral Reformation
4 The Seeds of Enlightenment
5 Enlightenment Now
6 Constructing the Bulwark of Liberty
7 Revolution and Reaction
8 The Quiet Continent: The War on Free Speech in Nineteenth-Century Europe
9 White Man’s Burden: Slavery, Colonialism, and Racial (In)Justice
10 The Totalitarian Temptation
11 The Age of Human Rights: Triumph and Tragedy
12 The Free Speech Recession
13 The Internet and the Future of Free Speech
Hailed as the “first freedom,” free speech is the bedrock of democracy. But it is a challenging principle, subject to erosion in times of upheaval. Today, in democracies and authoritarian states around the world, it is on the retreat.
In Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama traces the riveting legal, political, and cultural history of this idea. Through captivating stories of free speech’s many defenders—from the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes and the ninth-century freethinker al-Rāzī, to the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and modern-day digital activists—Mchangama reveals how the free exchange of ideas underlies all intellectual achievement and has enabled the advancement of both freedom and equality worldwide. Yet the desire to restrict speech, too, is a constant, and he explores how even its champions can be led down this path when the rise of new and contrarian voices challenge power and privilege of all stripes.
Meticulously researched and deeply humane, Free Speech demonstrates how much we have gained from this principle—and how much we stand to lose without it.
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
The commander in chief had had it with the press. He’d spent his time in the highest office of the land trying to do the best for his people, but all the press did was undermine him and endanger the nation. There he was, making the country great again, and what did they write about? His marriages, his divorces, his children, even his weight! It was time the purveyors of fake news paid the price for their slander, sedition, and outright treason. The most powerful man in the country decided it was time to push back, launching a 136-character broadside banning writings and books, as well imprinted as other in which such writings and books many open and manifest errors and slanders are contained.1
The story of England’s mercurial Henry VIII (who else?) sounds contemporary because it is. “Free Speech” is never ultimately won or lost. Ask a college student when the fight for free expression began, and you might get any one of a number of responses. Some Americans would say it started with the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791. A European might point to the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. A British person might cite John Milton’s Areopagitica, published in 1644. Whatever their differences, most would describe freedom of speech as a uniquely Western concept born somewhere around the Enlightenment. The reality is far more complex.
In truth, the roots of free speech are ancient, deep, and sprawling. The Athenian statesman Pericles extolled the democratic values of open debate and tolerance of social dissent in 431 BCE. In the ninth century CE, the irreverent freethinker Ibn al-Rāwandī used the fertile intellectual climate of the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate to question prophecy and holy books. In 1582 the Dutchman Dirck Coornhert insisted that it was “tyrannical to . . . forbid good books in order to squelch the truth.”2 The first legal protection of press freedom was instituted in Sweden in 1766 and Denmark became the first state in the world to abolish any and all censorship in 1770.
Yet, almost invariably the introduction of free speech sets in motion a process of entropy. The leaders of any political system—no matter how enlightened—inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far. Autocratic oligarchs disdainful of sharing power with the masses twice overthrew the ancient Athenian democracy, purging proponents of democracy and dissent along the way. Hardening laws against apostasy and blasphemy curtailed the most daring freethinking in medieval Islam. In the Dutch Republic of the sixteenth century, Dirck Coornhert was exiled and his writings banned on several occasions. Both Sweden’s and Denmark’s experiments with press freedom were short-lived as absolutist rulers took back control of the printing presses. This phenomenon of free speech entropy is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago, and when looking closer, the justifications for limiting free speech in the twenty-first century have more in common with those used many centuries past than perhaps we would like to admit.
The global club of free democracies is shrinking fast. As in ancient Athens, aspirational autocrats—from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Narendra Modi in India—view freedom of speech as the first and most important obstacle to be cleared on the path to entrenching their power. In parts of the Islamic world, blasphemy and apostasy are still punishable by death, whether enforced by the state or by jihadist vigilantes. The global free speech recession even extends to liberal democracies, who—not unlike Henry VIII—are fearful of the consequences of disinformation and hostile propaganda spreading uncontrollably among the masses through new technology.
Free speech entropy is not merely political, but deeply rooted in human psychology. The drive to please others, the fear of outgroups, the desire to avoid conflict, and everyday norms of kindness pull us in the direction of wanting to silence uncomfortable speakers, whether on digital platforms, at college campuses, or in cultural institutions. Like a massive body in outer space pulling in all the matter close to it, censorship draws us all in. It is therefore all the more vital to actively foster and maintain a culture of free speech to ensure that this freedom continues. Laws are not enough on their own.
One of the most common and intuitively appealing arguments for limiting tolerance of intolerance—to paraphrase the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper3—in modern democracies is the “Weimar fallacy.” It argues that if only the Weimar Republic had done more to prohibit totalitarian propaganda, Nazi Germany—and thus the Holocaust—might have been avoided. Therefore modern democracies cannot afford to make the same mistake. As we will see, that is a questionable conclusion for a number of reasons. Not least because there were constant attempts to silence both Hitler himself and the National Socialist Party. But those attempts often helped to increase interest in, and sympathy for, the Nazis, turning monsters into martyrs. Perhaps most chillingly, the Nazis used the Weimar Republic’s emergency laws to strangle the very democracy the laws were supposed to protect.
After World War II, the imperative of banning Nazi propaganda was cynically exploited by another totalitarian regime. Stalin’s Soviet Union used the Weimar fallacy to successfully lobby for the intro-duction of hate speech restrictions in international human rights law. This not only helped legitimize the crackdown on dissent in the Soviet bloc, but also provided legal cover under international human rights law to Muslim majority states eager to adopt a global blasphemy ban once communism had been defeated.
Closely related to the Weimar fallacy is a school of thought that insists that a commitment to the equal dignity of all requires banning hate speech in order to protect minorities and vulnerable groups from discrimination and oppression. The digital age has shown that concerns about social media—fanned hate speech should not be taken lightly, and that words that wound can contribute to both psychological and physical harms. The impact of such hate speech tends to impose a disproportionately heavy toll on targeted minorities. However, it does not follow that censorship is an appropriate or efficient remedy in societies committed to both freedom and equality. Protecting the vulnerable from discrimination and op-pression while seeking to preserve freedom and equality should and can be mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.
A global look at the history of free speech suggests that free speech is in fact an indispensable weapon in the fight against oppression. White supremacy, whether in the shape of American slavery and segregation, British colonialism, or South African apartheid, relied heavily on censorship and repression. Conversely, advocates of human equality like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela all championed the principle and practice of free speech to great effect and at huge personal cost. Tragically, several countries, not least India, still use hate speech laws with roots stretching back to the era of British colonialism to silence dissent and the minorities these laws were sup-posed to protect.
The trolling, flaming, and hostile propaganda that we see in the digital age show that speech can get ugly, and that the many benefits of equal and uninhibited discourse come at the price of inevitable abuse, disinformation, and hyperbole. Yet attempts to damp down on wild-eyed radicals, false information, propaganda, and sedition—from the Reformation to the Enlightenment and even twentieth-century America—suggest that whatever ideas and epithets are deemed beyond the pale according to the prevailing moral norms cannot be effectively eliminated without jeopardizing freedom of speech for all. Even the most well-intentioned attempts to ensure a safe and carefully regulated public sphere will eventually succumb to the phenomenon where erstwhile champions of free speech exclude specific groups or viewpoints, owing to blind spots of intolerance, ideology, or political expediency. Relatedly, the higher someone climbs on the political ladder, the greater the temptation to abandon principles of liberty and impose censorship under the guise of some public-spirited goal. We will see such challenges to the principle of free speech everywhere from John Milton to Voltaire, and from Robespierre to the second US president, John Adams, and his Federalist administration responsible for the Sedition Act of 1798.
Video and Podcast
“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made.” – P.J. O’Rourke
McHangama, founder of the Danish think thank Justitia, documents centuries-long tensions over “equal and uninhibited discourse” in this impassioned defense of free speech. Making a persuasive argument that free discourse is essential to democracy, breaking down systems of oppression, and challenging existing social hierarchies, McHangama profiles advocates, including 19th-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, who warned against the “stifling effects of social norms” on freedom of speech; founding father James Madison, whose draft of the First Amendment described freedom of the press as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty”; and the ninth-century Persian physician al-Rāzī, who “was highly critical of the restrictions religious fanaticism placed on free thought.” McHangama also incisively analyzes “the process of entropy” that leads political leaders—“no matter how enlightened”—to “inevitably convince themselves that now free speech has gone too far,” and debunks arguments in favor of censorship, including claims that the lack of prohibitions against totalitarian propaganda in Weimar Germany facilitated the rise of the Nazis. Readers on both the right and the left seeking insights into modern-day debates over free speech will welcome this evenhanded and wide-ranging history. (Feb.) – Publishers Weekly
“[An] expansive, atypical history… When free speech advances, as [Mchangama] shows, rulers and other elites often grow alarmed and conclude that it has gone “too far.” Long before governments and thinkers panicked about the spread of noxious ideas via social media, they panicked over the spread of noxious ideas via the printing press…Free Speech is addressed especially to the well-meaning among would-be censors. They should know how rarely censorship goes as planned.” – Wall Street Journal
“Mchangama’s conclusions, presented in a crisp and confident march through Western history, are sobering.” – Economist
“Smart, insightful, and astute… Mchangama provides a sweeping and lively account, rich in historical detail from societies around the world, exploring how the forces of authority and control — religious, political, ideological, economic, social, and cultural — relentlessly seek to impose restrictions on what people can think, write, and say, while the human instincts to freely express ourselves, to learn, and to spread new ideas, valiantly and persistently resist.” – Los Angeles Review of Books
“[A] tour-de-force… Free Speech covers a lot of ground, offering an account of the history that is at once panoramic and intricately detailed… Most notably, though, Mchangama’s work is profoundly relevant for our current historical moment… What we have is precious—and must be protected and preserved. Gaining a sense of perspective, especially a global one, is precisely what makes Mchangama’s book so essential.” – Washington Monthly
“Engrossing and comprehensive.” – Washington Examiner
“A book that’s this thorough, detailed and balanced is especially valuable now, given our country’s current fit of polarization.” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A work with no real counterpart, at once vividly told, masterfully researched, and exceptionally executed page after page as the history of free speech breaches the barriers of time to come alive with verve and profundity. Given its breadth and depth, Mchangama’s work may well prove to be one of the most important books on free speech published in our lifetimes — an extraordinary achievement!” – First Amendment News
“[Free Speech makes] a persuasive argument that free discourse is essential to democracy, breaking down systems of oppression, and challenging existing social hierarchies… Readers on both the right and the left seeking insights into modern day debates over free speech will welcome this evenhanded and wide ranging history.” – Publishers Weekly
“A well-structured and compelling examination of the costs and benefits of free speech.” – Kirkus, Starred Review
“A provocative exploration of a transformative political right.” – Booklist, Starred Review
“Mchangama has written an insightful, nicely woven history that provides a coherent picture of how free speech has developed globally… With accessible and engaging writing, Mchangama’s book is a highly recommended intellectual history.” – Library Journal, Starred Review
“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made. Jacob Mchangama never loses sight of the trouble freedom causes but always keeps in mind that lack of freedom creates horrors.” – P.J. O’Rourke
“Freedom of speech has emerged as a major issue of this decade, but most of the discussion consists of outrages over speech or the repression of speech. Missing is the intellectual background: What does free speech really mean? What is its history? How has it played out in world events? Why should we defend it? Jacob Mchangama lays out this context with deep erudition, strong writing, and a light touch.” – Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of Enlightenment Now and Rationality
“A lot of people now claim that free speech is a danger to democracy or social inclusion. In this vital book, which is as entertaining as it is erudite, Jacob Mchangama shows why that is dead wrong. Drawing on both historical analysis and normative argument, he makes a compelling case for why anyone who cares about liberty or justice must defend free speech.” – Yascha Mounk, author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University
“Jacob Mchangama’s history of the world’s strangest, best idea is the definitive account we have been waiting for. It teems with valuable insights, lively characters, and the author’s passion for the cause he has done so much to advance. Mchangama brings to life the ancient struggles which established free speech and also the modern dangers which embattle it. Free Speech is that rare book which will impress scholars as much as it entertains readers, all while telling the world’s most improbable success story.” – Jonathan Rauch, author of The Constitution of Knowledge
“Jacob Mchangama’s panoramic exploration of the history of free speech offers a vivid, highly readable account of how today’s most pitched battles over free speech reflect tensions and impulses that are as old as history itself. Mchangama persuasively dismantles the persistent claims, common to every era and technological evolution, that unprecedented new threats warrant expanded constraints on speech. This indispensable book is a must for both defenders of free speech and, even more so, for those entertaining the notion that free speech should or must be traded away in order to advance other public goods.” – Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (2020)
“In Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama presents a compelling case for the unique, universal, enduring importance of free and equal speech for all people, regardless of their particular identities or ideologies. This fascinating account, of magisterial scope, demonstrates the constant liberating and equalizing force of free speech, throughout history and around the world. It also documents the constant censorial pressures, including many that reflect positive aims, and their inevitable suppression of full and equal human rights.” – Nadine Strossen, Former National President, American Civil Liberties Union
Journalist McHangama has written an insightful, nicely woven history that provides a coherent picture of how free speech has developed globally. From ancient Greece to the internet’s gigabytes, this account contends there has been a constant push-and-pull of whether freedom of speech is granted to the masses or solely held by the ruling elite. During his research, McHangama noticed patterns where people were granted the freedom to express their ideas but became vituperative and repressive to those who had more radical ideas. Using numerous anecdotes, the author makes this well-researched narrative both informative and entertaining as he recounts accusations of heresy and restrictions on the freedom of religion during the Inquisition and Martin Luther’s invention of the printing press, which challenged conventional ideas of disseminating news. McHangama argues that all ideas must be shared in order for democracies to survive and he warns against tech corporations, such as Twitter or Facebook, controlling speech on their platforms. VERDICT With accessible and engaging writing, McHangama’s book is a highly recommended intellectual history for casual readers and those interested in the currency of free speech. – Jacob Sherman, Univ. of Texas at San Antonio
A comprehensive history of free speech from ancient to modern times.
In this well-researched and highly readable book, Copenhagen-based writer Mchangama, host of the podcast series Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, traces the history of free speech around the world, examining the views of both its advocates and its suppressors. The author effectively demonstrates how much we have gained by the spread of free speech as well as what we stand to lose if we allow its continued erosion. Mchangama begins with ancient civilizations—“Judging from surviving law codes and writings, the great ancient civilizations protected the power and authority of their rulers from the speech of their subjects, not the other way around”—and ends with a discussion of the current content moderation and transparency problems of social media platforms, which allow the spread of disinformation and hate speech. Throughout history, Mchangama shows, numerous groups and individuals have diligently worked on the advancement of free speech, including Socrates, Johannes Gutenberg, John Milton, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela. While fighting for their cause, champions of free speech have faced leaders who have tried to rein in speech when they felt threatened. These efforts at suppression have included the banning of books, distribution of propaganda, attacks on the media, and even the imprisonment or murder of journalists. Today, as we continue to fight to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, censorship, lies, and conspiracy theories abound, and the legitimacy of the current presidency is being erroneously questioned. However, notes Mchangama, “while online expression may sometimes lead to real-life harm, it does not necessarily follow that placing restrictions on free speech is an effective remedy.” At the same time, as the author points out with respect to attempts to overthrow democracy, free speech should be accompanied by “a zero-tolerance policy toward organized threats, intimidations, and violence by groups seeking to establish parallel systems of authority.”
A well-structured and compelling examination of the costs and benefits of free speech. – Kirkus Reviews