Free Speech History Podcast


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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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Free Speech History Podcast
Episode 35 - White Man´s Burden: Empire, Liberalism and Censorship 

Dec 02, 2019

During the mass protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 pro-democracy protestors have waved Union Jack flags and been singing God Save the Queen. A clear rejection of the authoritarian political system of mainland China in favor of the...

During the mass protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 pro-democracy protestors have waved Union Jack flags and been singing God Save the Queen. A clear rejection of the authoritarian political system of mainland China in favor of the political system inherited from the British colonial past based on the rule of law and political liberties including freedom of the press.

The symbolic value of the pro-British sentiments of Hong Kong´s protestors would not be lost on Britain´s imperial masterminds and administrators. Many of whom thought that empire and liberalism went hand in hand. In a combination of genuine goodwill and blatant ethnocentrism, the British colonizers took on the burden of civilizing the world and ensuring that the sun would never set on press freedom.

But the actual practice of British colonialism was very different from the idealized version dreamt up by English liberal imperialists and modern Hong Kong protestors. Colonial officials were more than willing to use censorship and repression when news and ideas were thought to threaten British interests in places like Hong Kong, India and Africa. The laws and practices that they used for those purposes not only stifled criticism of colonialism but also did so on the basis of crude racial and ethnic prejudices. This created a parallel system of censorship and repression that severely undermined the liberal credentials of Britain and included victims like Mahatma Gandhi and the Kenyan activist Harry Thuku. And as we shall see the British legacy of censorship and repression still shapes the climate for free speech in some former colonies.  

Much the same schizophrenia characterized France´s colonial empire supposedly built on its commitment to universal human rights stretching back to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. A commitment that became difficult to sustain when the colonized insisted that freedom and imperialism was incompatible. 

In this episode, we´ll see how British and French colonial authorities struggled to reconcile their commitment to liberalism with colonial empire and

  • How the British crafted an Indian Penal Code that criminalized sedition, communal hate speech and blasphemy
  • How prominent Indian nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi were convicted of sedition
  • How Gandhi gave a stirring defense of the fundamental value of free speech when tried for sedition
  • How Indians in East Africa collaborated with Africans in spreading anti-colonial dissent in Indian owned newspapers and publications,
  • How African nationalists protesting racist policies and exploitation were exiled by the British  
  • How British West Africa developed a free and thriving press until British repression in the 1930s 
  • How the British introduced preventive censorship in Hong Kong during World War 1 
  • How the British maintained a separate system of preventive censorship of Chinese language newspapers in Hong Kong even after the war,
  • How the British adopted special censorship guidelines for cinema based on crude racial and ethnic considerations
  • How Chinese language newspapers mounted a principled defense of press freedom in Hong Kong,
  • How the French in Indochina (Vietnam) went from tolerance to active repression of local newspapers,
  • How African activists were exiled to the “Dry Guillotine” of the Mauritanian desert when protesting French rule

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 Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, 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 34 – The Age of Reaction: The fall and rise of free speech in 19th century Europe 

Nov 21, 2019

The 18th century ended with free speech in full retreat. With the French Revolution, the call for “Enlightenment Now!” was no longer seen as the harbinger of humanity’s inevitable march toward progress. It had become synonymous with radical...

The 18th century ended with free speech in full retreat. With the French Revolution, the call for “Enlightenment Now!” was no longer seen as the harbinger of humanity’s inevitable march toward progress. It had become synonymous with radical forces of destruction drowning monarchy, tradition, and religion in the blood of kings, aristocrats, and nuns. 

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, conservatives and monarchs were firmly back in power — and they had no intention of letting go. Never again were those rulers who put down wild-eyed revolutionaries like mad dogs going to allow radicals to seduce the people with lofty principles and propaganda.

In order to rebuild a stabile Europe with respect for authority and tradition, freedom of speech had to be reined in. Even in supposedly liberal Britain, William Pitt’s anti-revolutionary “reign of terror” of the 1790s was revived and intensified in the 1810s and 20s. In this episode, we see how European rulers weaved an intricate web of censorship and repression across the continent. We will see:

  • How the Congress of Vienna entrenched an authoritarian and traditionalist political order in Europe after the battle of Waterloo
  • How the Carlsbad Decrees centralized preventive censorship and limited academic freedom across the German Confederation 
  • How German writers like Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx fought an uphill battle against censorship and repression
  • How European censorship was driven by a fear of the increasingly literate masses 
  • How the British government used the crimes of seditious and blasphemous libel to harass and intimidate political radicals and reformers
  • How the Peterloo Massacre of workers in Manchester radicalized opposition to the Tory government and intensified the calls for reform
  • How the radical publisher Richard Carlile spent 10 years in prison for selling deist and republican publications, including Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason”
  • How Carlile and his workers ultimately defeated the government with a constant stream of “seditious” and “blasphemous” publications, despite being imprisoned and harassed
  • How James and John Stuart Mill contributed to expanding the British tolerance of controversial religious and political ideas as the 19th century progressed
  • How the French Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 led to brief periods of liberal euphoria and the collapse of censorship across Europe, only to be crushed by counter-revolutionary forces
  • How the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck used a national emergency to crush socialist and social democratic newspapers and publications in the second half of the 19th century
  • How the idea of press freedom and the mechanization of the printing press made pre-publication censorship impossible for most governments
  • How press freedom regained its momentum at the end of the 19th century

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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