By Nathan Curland
What is “free speech”? Why is it important? Are there limits, or is every utterance permissible? What does history tell us about this topic? These are the questions that Jacob Mchangama tackles in Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media.
Highly praised by such notable intellectuals as Steven Pinker and Nadine Strossen, the 400-page tome has been called the most complete history and discussion of free speech ever written. (The notes and bibliography add another 100 pages to the book.)
Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia. He has a law degree from the University of Copenhagen and spent a number of years there as a professor before becoming a free speech activist.
His activism came to a head following the 2015 jihadist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons mocking Mohammed and the ensuing global debate on the limits of free speech. This volume and the associated podcast, “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech,” were five years in the making.
In the introduction, Mchangama maintains that history shows democracy cannot stand without free speech. He starts by noting that the first indication that the values of democracy and free speech could be formalized was in the 5th century BCE in Athens. As a citizen, one could engage in bold and honest speech in public, even criticizing the government. However, even here there were limits, as Socrates discovered when he was accused of blasphemy, which eventually led to his suicide. The Athenian democracy did not last long, less than 200 years, as autocratic forces took control and clamped down on what could or could not be said about the government.
The emergence of free speech and an associated democracy of sorts, followed by an eventual takeover by authoritarian forces, is an ongoing story throughout world history. From the ancient Roman Republic to the enlightened Islamic Caliphates of the first millennium to the early universities of Europe and eventually to the modern age, we have seen free speech lead to democratic and human rights advances, only to be crushed as authoritarian figures take control, either of the narrative or by force.
An example is the 18th century Enlightenment, when free talk among the intelligentsia as well as the general populace flourished. Even monarchs such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia relaxed prohibitions against speech. However, these advances did not survive the debacle and mob rule of the French revolution, which led to a major clamping down of individual liberties, not just in France but across Europe.
The detail that Mchangama brings to this history is astounding and engaging as we learn about the multitude of actors involved in advocating for free speech, using it for their own gain, or working actively to suppress it. He covers a long list of those who advocated for free speech through the ages, including many we are familiar with: Spinoza, James Madison, Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Orwell — but many others as well. He also writes about those who worked to undermine free expression.
Of particular note is the influence of technology. The invention of the printing press had a huge impact on making written works available, not only to the elite, but to the general public, which, in turn greatly influenced the wider spread of literacy and the ability of more and more humans to engage in the body politic. (The same can be said for the internet today.) This led to a wider desire for the ability to be able to speak your mind and the subsequent democratization of a good portion of the world.
Autocratic powers, however, have constantly found ways to blunt the positive effects of new technology and use it for their own purposes.
Unfortunately, free speech can be (and has been) used in ways detrimental to the health of egalitarian societies, leading to various attempts to limit it. The concept of “hate speech” is an example: when does speech become so hateful that it must be limited? Is it allowable to express your dislike or contempt for a person or group as long as you do not advocate for violence? Can one demand that a person be fired and his/her life ruined because you disagree with their political belief? (Think of the cancel culture infecting some of our universities.)
How about boycotts, which can harm large populations or industries? Is conflation of blasphemy with hate speech valid? All these examples show how difficult it is to draw a line between free speech and allowed speech.
I suggest readers begin with Mchangama’s concluding chapter before tackling the entire volume. He notes that despite the great advances made in free speech over the last century, in recent decades it has been under attack worldwide and we must all be vigilant in its defense: “Free speech is still an experiment, and no one can guarantee the outcome of providing a free, equal, and instant voice to billions of people,” he writes. “But a careful look at history suggests that the experiment is a noble one.” And finally, “For all its flaws, a world with less free speech will also be less tolerant, democratic, enlightened, innovative, free, and fun.”
Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama (Basic Books, Feb 2022)