A History from Socrates to Social Media
“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made.” —P.J. O’Rourke
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.
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-R z , 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.