“Witchcraft and accursed things must go.” So said Tennessee pastor Greg Locke, who presided over a book-burning event in a Nashville suburb earlier this month. Harry Potter and Twilight were just two of the titles that went up in flames.
If this sounds like a scene from a bygone era, Jacob Mchangama’s new tour-de-force book, Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media, tells us otherwise. Mchangama, a Danish lawyer and human rights advocate, argues that censorship is a universal human impulse, always waiting for “the right moment to establish new orthodoxies and seek out fresh heretics.”
Over the full span of recorded human history, the powers-that-be have consistently turned to censorship to silence dissenting voices. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest surviving legal codes created in Mesopotamia some 3,800 years ago, granted slave owners the right to cut off their slaves’ ears if they said the words “you are not my master.”
Across the globe, the main enemies of free expression have been public and religious authorities. Sedition and blasphemy are the charges most frequently leveled against those offending “King and Church” or “Throne and Altar,” in Mchangama’s pithy phrasing.
Pope Gelasius I issued the first index of forbidden books around 496. The Roman Catholic Church published the Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) from 1559 to 1966. Among the thousands of heretical or obscene books called out across the centuries were Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Blasphemy was often fatal for individuals. “Impiety” was the official allegation that resulted in Socrates drinking poisonous hemlock. In Western Europe between 1523 and the mid-1600s, an estimated 5,000 people were executed because of their religious beliefs. Death itself might not even be an escape. Pity poor John Wycliffe, the 14th century philosopher condemned posthumously for heresy, who then had his remains exhumed and set alight.
Of course, speaking your mind on political subjects could be deadly, too. Through the horror, though, one sometimes catches a glimpse of humor. Henry VIII, for instance, made it a punishable offense to call him “a tyrant.” In 2017, the Russian Ministry of Culture banned the black comedy The Death of Stalin, assuring the public “we have freedom of speech” but the film “desecrates our historical symbols.” An appreciation of irony has never been the strong suit of kings, dictators, and authoritarian regimes.
Free Speech covers a lot of ground, offering an account of the history that is at once panoramic and intricately detailed, stretching from Ancient Athens to present-day Silicon Valley. It also has insightful chapters on the medieval Islamic world, British India, and the Eastern bloc.
Most notably, though, Mchangama’s work is profoundly relevant for our current historical moment.
Free speech has received a bad rap during the past five or six years. During the Trump Presidency, conservative trolls and alt-right flamethrowers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer masqueraded as free speech martyrs as their campus speaking gigs—in which they blatantly espoused white supremacist views—got canceled or devolved into chaos. Many younger people concluded that the right to free speech is effectively a license to offend and oppress historically marginalized groups, especially people of color. In this view, free speech is nothing more than a weapon of the rich, the powerful, and the privileged.
More recently, left-leaning commentators and pundits have knocked free speech for facilitating the spread of misinformation, from the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen to false claims about the transmission and prevention of COVID.
Mchangama’s distinction between egalitarian and elitist conceptions of free speech offers a useful framework for making sense of these controversies. There is a perennial conflict, he says, “between egalitarian free speech in which every citizen has a say in public affairs, with its roots in democratic Athens, and privileged free speech, limited to a well-educated or wealthy elite, rooted in Republican Rome.”
Every technological innovation, Mchangama shows, has provoked fear among the traditional gatekeepers of public opinion that “the newcomers will manipulate the masses through dangerous ideas and propaganda, threatening the established social and political order.” After the advent of the printing press, there were repeated attempts across different countries to suppress the publication of Bibles written in the vernacular, lest the commoners start “getting funny ideas above their station.” In 1858, the New York Times expressed grave concern that the transatlantic telegraph was “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.”
Mchangama uses the term “elite panic” to describe this recurring phenomenon. The rise of social media has been no different, with many cultural elites expressing a profound skepticism about the capacity of their fellow citizens to tell fact from fiction when presented with unmediated access to information.
With respect to COVID misinformation, in particular, consider the recent “I’m No Expert” episode of the WNYC program On The Media. Host Brooke Gladstone asks writer and attorney Jill Filipovic, “How do you solve a problem like Joe Rogan?” Filipovic’s response: Rogan should feature more credible public health experts on his program, and Spotify should take steps to “remove any shows that do disseminate public health misinformation.”
Mchangama is highly skeptical of top-down approaches that aim to cut off misinformation at its source, where the onus of responsibility is on content creators and disseminators. He would point out that, as with terms like blasphemy and seditious libel, there is a strong degree of subjectivity when it comes to identifying “misinformation.” To would-be censors, the bogus pseudoscience peddled by some of Rogan’s guests may be difficult to separate from informed analysis and plausible hypothesizing. Indeed, YouTube removed as “misinformation” a clip of Stanford professor of epidemiology John Ioannidis questioning the wisdom of strict lockdowns. Facebook initially deleted lab-leak content as “misinformation” before reversing course.
When it comes to combating hateful speech and misinformation, Mchangama is in favor of a bottom-up approach. Instead of relying on gatekeepers and censors, he wants to empower the consumers of information by investing in public education, developing our critical thinking capacity. I suspect he would support the expansion of information literacy courses in K-12 schools where students would learn vital skills such as how to analyze the trustworthiness of different sources.
In this regard, Mchangama shares the view of Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang who stresses that “immunizing democracies against disinformation from below requires a nation to trust its citizens and civil society, rather than viewing them as a fickle mob ready to believe whatever outrageous rumors are being spread.”
Trust may seem like an antiquated term to many Americans today, as right and left eye one another warily across culture war battlelines. But taking the long view, Mchangama concludes that the net benefits of free speech outweigh its “harms and pathologies.” James Madison’s assessment of the free press is apropos here. “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of [the press],” Madison wrote. But it’s “better to leave a few of its noxious branches, to their luxuriant growth, than by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits.”
For Mchangama, the fruits of free speech are many and varied, including the pursuit of knowledge, cross-cultural communication across borders and the advancement of civil and human rights. Or, as Frederick Douglas said, “The right of free speech is a very precious one, especially for the oppressed.” Mchangama argues cogently that, in established democracies, the virtues of free speech “are largely invisible, since we take them for granted.” I am reminded of economist Amartya Sen’s observation that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.”
At the same time, it’s our freedom of speech that gives us the best instrument to combat lies and misinformation. As Louis Brandeis wrote in his defense of free speech in Whitney v. California, which legal scholars recognize as providing the theoretical framework for the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, the best remedy for exposing “falsehoods and fallacies” is “more speech, not enforced silence.”
Those of us who live in democracies with press freedom should count ourselves lucky, according to Mchangama’s account. In 2016, fewer than one-third of countries across the globe had a free press, according to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House. That same year, only 13 percent of the world’s 7.4 billion people enjoyed free speech protections. 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.