Free Speech History Podcast

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Free Speech History Podcast
Episode 40 - The Age of Human Rights: Tragedy and Triumph 

Feb 04, 2020

In 2014, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam by promoting secular values on his blog Free Saudi Liberals.  Raif Badawi’s fate would have been familiar to Soviet refusenik...

In 2014, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam by promoting secular values on his blog Free Saudi Liberals. 

Raif Badawi’s fate would have been familiar to Soviet refusenik and human rights activist Natan Sharansky, and many other dissidents in the Soviet Bloc, who also faced long prison sentences and inhuman treatment during the Cold War. Both theocratic and communist states proclaim to be in possession of the “truth.” Consequently, they punish those who engage in religious or ideological heresy, leaving little room for the idea of human rights. 

So, it is no surprise that in 1948, Saudi Arabia and six European Communist states were among the eight countries that did not vote in favor of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Both communist and Islamic states developed cautious strategies to engage with the growing human rights system in order to seek legitimacy without undermining their grip on power. One key strategy was to pull the teeth from the protection of free expression by including simultaneous obligations to prohibit the broadly defined concept of “incitement to hatred.” But ultimately the very human rights language which the communist states had sought to contain ended up eroding the communist stranglehold on power. 

But the repressive legacy of Communism had a long half-life, even after the ideology itself was dumped on the ash heap of history at the end of the Cold War. The countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — the OIC — sought to exploit the very loopholes that the communist states had introduced for their own purposes. Instead of protecting an atheistic and materialistic ideology, they advanced an interpretation of human rights where restrictions on free speech protected theistic and metaphysical Islamic doctrines from criticism and satire. And while a concerted global effort by democracies successfully beat back the OIC offensive at the UN, this conflict is still ongoing. In fact, the democracies and human rights system of Western Europe have internalized and expanded limitations on free speech, which they once deemed dangerous. This raises the question of just how robust the future of free speech — and the culture on which it depends — really is.      

In this episode we will explore:

  • How the Communist East and the Capitalist West clashed over the limits of free speech when drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the UN;
  • How Eleanor Roosevelt became a dogged and eloquent defender of principled free speech protections and warned against Soviet attempts to abuse hate speech restrictions to punish all dissent;
  • How the American position at the UN clashed with domestic laws targeting communists under the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism;
  • How the Soviet Bloc used laws against “incitement” to punish hundreds of dissidents and human rights activists behind the Iron Curtain;
  • How the Helsinki Final Act provided dissidents with a tool to hold their governments morally accountable for human rights violations;
  • How Western states and human rights NGOs gave dissidents like Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov a voice and increased the pressure on the Soviet Bloc;
  • How the Helsinki Final Act contributed to the fall of Communism;
  • How, after the end of the Cold War, the OIC launched a campaign to prohibit “defamation of religions” at the UN;
  • How the OIC campaign managed to secure majorities at the UN and conflate blasphemy and hate speech;
  • How the OIC campaign was defeated by the Obama administration and the application of the Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio; and
  • How case law from the European Court of Human Rights undermines efforts to prevent future abuse of human rights to limit freedom of expression.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayYouTubeTuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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Free Speech History Podcast
Episode 39 - The Totalitarian Temptation – Part II - Der Untergang 

Jan 27, 2020

In November 2019 German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a passionate speech to the German Bundestag. Merkel said “We have freedom of expression in this country…. But freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread …...

In November 2019 German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a passionate speech to the German Bundestag. Merkel said “We have freedom of expression in this country…. But freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread … where the dignity of other people is violated”.

Merkel grew up under a stifling communist dictatorship and serves as chancellor of a country where vicious propaganda once helped paved the way for genocide. So few have stronger credentials when it comes to balancing the pros and cons of free speech. And Merkel´s words of warning are impossible to separate from Germany´s Nazi past following the democratic collapse of the Weimar republic.  There can be no doubt that Merkel and the German commitment to “militant democracy” is motivated by a sincere belief, to paraphrase the political philosopher Karl Popper´s famous “paradox of tolerance,” that democracies must be intolerant towards the intolerant. . 

But there are also those who argue that criminalizing speech is a cure worse than the disease in democracies. To use a deliberately provocative term, laws against free speech might serve as “enabling acts” for authoritarian regimes to crush dissent once in power. 

George Orwell reached the opposite conclusion of Merkel. In the unpublished foreword to his famous novel Animal Farm, Orwell warned against the “widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods”. Orwell cautioned “that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.” 

In this episode we will explore how Weimar Germany was deeply conflicted about the value of free speech. On the one hand, freedom of expression and the press were constitutionally protected. On the other hand, the constitution allowed censorship of cinema and “trash and filth” in literature. Weimar Germany enjoyed a vibrant public sphere with thousands of newspapers, daring art, great intellectuals and groundbreaking science, and yet, authorities used draconian laws and emergency decrees to curb newspapers and individuals seen as fanning the flames of political violence by anti-democratic groups on the right and left. This included one Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party. 

When the Nazis finally assumed power, they not only used terror and violence, but also turned the laws and principles supposed to protect the democratic order in to weapons against democracy, paving the way for totalitarianism, war, and genocide.

In this episode we will explore:

  • How Weimar Germany abolished censorship and created a vibrant public sphere;
  • How democracy was challenged by violent extremists on the political right and left;
  • How Adolf Hitler viewed press freedom and free expression as corrosive principles which allowed “Poison to enter the national bloodstream and infect public life”;
  • How Hitler used his devastating talent for public speaking to whip the crowds in Bavarian beer halls into a frenzy of hatred and become leader of the NSDAP;
  • How Weimar authorities failed to enforce bans against violent paramilitary groups on the right; 
  • How Hitler and anti-Semitic Nazi newspapers like Der Stürmer and Der Angriff used bans against public speaking and punishments for speech crimes to gain propaganda victories and attract attention;
  • How laws and emergency decrees to defend the republic led to increasingly draconian measures against the press, including 284 temporary bans of newspapers in Prussia alone, in 1932; 
  • How Hitler used the constitution and existing laws to suspend the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and terrorize political opponents through violence and mass detentions without trial in concentration camps;  
  • How Hitler turned Germany into a one-party state in less than six months;
  • How news laws turned any form of dissent, including jokes and rumours, into serious speech crimes;
  • How Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment ensured the complete submission of the press, literature and art to the dictates of Nazi ideology;
  • How some Germans continued to dissent including the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer;
  • How the combination of ideological censorship and propaganda paved the way for the shocking brutality of the German war machine and ultimately for genocide.

 Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayYouTubeTuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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Free Speech History Podcast
Episode 38 - The Totalitarian Temptation – Part I 

Jan 15, 2020

In George Orwell’s 1946 work, “The Prevention of Literature,” he wrote: [O]rganised lying … is … integral to totalitarianism, [and] would … continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary. … A...

In George Orwell’s 1946 work, “The Prevention of Literature,” he wrote:

[O]rganised lying … is … integral to totalitarianism, [and] would … continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary. … A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. … Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.

As we shall see, the Orwellian diagnosis of totalitarianism was surgical in its precision. But despite the defeat of European communism, fascism, and Nazism, the dark and bloody past of totalitarianism still casts long shadows on European liberal democracies. On the one hand, freedom of expression is a foundational value ensuring the pluralism and autonomy that is anathema to totalitarianism. On the other hand many countries restrict free speech to safeguard against totalitarian propaganda aimed at undermining democracy. This raises the question: Should we be most afraid of totalitarian movements abusing free speech to abolish other freedoms and democracy, or of democracies abusing limits on free speech to silent dissent? In this first of a two-part episode on totalitarianism in Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, we will focus on the rise of communism and Italian fascism and the effects of these ideologies on free expression. Hopefully this journey into the darkest of pasts will help shed light on how to grapple with one of democracy’s eternal and inevitable dilemmas: What should be the limits of free speech?  

In this episode we will explore:

  • How Tsarist Russia was the last European great power to abolish preventive censorship;
  • How the fall of the Tsarist regime led to a brief period of full press freedom;
  • How, once in power, the very first legislative act of the Bolsheviks was to suppress the “bourgeois press” by closing down hundreds of publications and print shops; 
  • How Lenin and Trotsky defeated Bolshevik and socialist opponents who demanded an end to press censorship in revolutionary Russia;
  • How Lenin combined suffocating censorship with terror against “class enemies”;
  • How Stalin expanded Lenin’s repressive censorship machinery and radicalized the terror, killing millions of people; 
  • How Mussolini went from working as a socialist journalist to founding a fascist newspaper;
  • How fascist violence and intimidation paved the way for Mussolini to assume power;
  • How Mussolini combined censorship and propaganda to ensure ideological uniformity of the press;
  • How fascist blackshirts and secret police kept political opponents cowed through surveillance, intimidation, and murder; and
  • How a novel on interracial love infuriated Mussolini and caused book censorship to be severely expanded.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayYouTubeTuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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Free Speech History Podcast
Episode 37 - Expert opinion: The History of Mass Surveillance, with Andreas Marklund  

Dec 30, 2019

In 2013 the NSA contractor Edward Snowden sent shockwaves through the American government when he leaked information exposing a number of vast mass surveillance programs providing the US Government and allies access to global digital communication...

In 2013 the NSA contractor Edward Snowden sent shockwaves through the American government when he leaked information exposing a number of vast mass surveillance programs providing the US Government and allies access to global digital communication networks. The harvesting of data has been aided by the vast data collection by big Tech Companies like Google and Facebook whose business model relies on knowing more about their users then their users know about themselves. The combination of state and corporate mass surveillance of the digital sphere has obvious consequences for both freedom of expression and information. Private conversations are rarely ever truly private and the centralization of communication platforms allows both governments and corporations to censor and control the flow of information. This development has changed public perception of the digital age from one of unlimited freedom, promise and possibilities to cynicism, fear and paranoia. But the age of mass surveillance was not ushered in with the Internet. In fact just as today mass surveillance was dominated by the leading liberal democracy of its day, when Great Britain laid the foundation at the outbreak of World War I. And as in the 21. century the issues that drove the push for mass surveillance and censorship at scale was national security and fears of extremism, disinformation and propaganda.

With me to discuss the history of mass surveillance and its consequences for freedom of expression and information is Andreas Marklund who is the head of research at the ENIGMA Museum of Communication, in Copenhagen.

In this conversation we will explore:

  • How Britain built a system of mass surveillance through controlling and tapping global communication cables during WWI
  • How Britain´s interception of the so-called Zimmerman telegram changed the course of history
  • How “fake news” and propaganda became a main concern and cause for censorship and manipulation of information by governments
  • How news agencies like Reuters became involved in this communication war through the influence of the British Ministry of Information
  • How telephone communications were systematically surveilled and censored in Scandinavia
  • How mass surveillance and censorship justified by war became useful tools for more general surveillance
  • How the development of radio caused panics among governments who could no longer control or access the flow of information across borders?
  • How Nazi Germany exploited mass surveillance “to give the government…such far-reaching insight into the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of the entire German people as had never been known in all history”.
  • The similarities and differences between the mass surveillance systems built during WWI and those of today
  • How mass surveillance differs in democracies and totalitarian states
  • Whether mass surveillance is an inevitable part of modern life even in liberal democracies

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayYouTubeTuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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Free Speech History Podcast
Episode 36 - Expert opinion: Thomas Healy on how Oliver Wendell Holmes changed the history of free speech in America 

Dec 19, 2019

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected president, gave his first inaugural address. Jefferson eloquently dismissed the logic behind the Sedition Act of 1798, which had sent Republican critics of then-Federalist President John Adams to...

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected president, gave his first inaugural address. Jefferson eloquently dismissed the logic behind the Sedition Act of 1798, which had sent Republican critics of then-Federalist President John Adams to prison:

We are all republicans: we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.

Based on this strong commitment to a robust protection of free speech, one might have expected the First Amendment to play a key role in entrenching the Jeffersonian vision of free expression. But instead, it became an almost dead letter for more than a century until revived by an iconic but unlikely champion of the First Amendment: Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In this conversation, professor Thomas Healy explains how Wendell Holmes changed his mind on free speech and laid the foundation for the current strong legal protection of the First Amendment. Thomas Healy is a professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law and the author of the award-winning book “The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind--And Changed the History of Free Speech in America”. 

The conversation will explore:

  • Why the First Amendment remained a dead letter in 19th century America.
  • How Oliver Wendell Holmes’ background shaped his opinions and outlook.
  • How Oliver Wendell Holmes long upheld a “Blackstonian” conception of free speech protecting only against prior restraints on, not subsequent punishments of, speech.  
  • How the Blackstonian conception of free speech permitted the federal and local governments to restrict and punish everything from peaceful public protests, obscenity, and political speech of “bad tendency.”
  • How the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 led to dramatic restrictions of political speech and indictments of thousands of activists protesting American participation in World War I. 
  • The remarkable development in Wendell Holmes’ conception of the First Amendment, from his opinion upholding conviction in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States to his famous dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States. 
  • How a number of young scholars like Learned Hand, Harold Laski, Zechariah Chafee, and Felix Frankfurter were instrumental in changing Wendell Holmes’ mind on the limits of free speech. 
  • How Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced the clear and present danger test, which would become an important test under First Amendment law over the coming decades.
  • Whether Wendell Holmes’ legacy will endure in the 21st century, and would he even want it to in the digital age?

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayYouTubeTuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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