Table of Contents

World history of free speech recounted in new book by Jacob Mchangama — FAN 327

A global history of free speech, from the ancient world to today
Free Speech A History book cover
The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David

Turn the clock back before 41 podcast episodes of Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, created and narrated by Jacob Mchangama. I recall meeting this fellow with an accent (He's a Danish lawyer.) who had an all too ambitious idea about doing a podcast series followed by a book (Get this!) on the world history of free speech. While it struck me as a fascinating project, I had my doubts about how anyone could possibly pull it off. But the more I listened to Jacob, and then listened to one remarkable podcast after another, the more it became evident that he might indeed move the mountain.

Then came the manuscript, which made it clear that he was taking his idea to the next level. The result was a 500-plus page book with almost 100 pages of endnotes! That book, "Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media," will be released by Basic Books on Feb. 8. It is a work with no real counterpart, at once vividly told, masterfully researched, and exceptionally executed page after page as the history of free speech breaches the barriers of time to come alive with verve and profundity. Given its breadth and depth, Mchangama's work may well prove to be one of the most important books on free speech published in our lifetimes — an extraordinary achievement! 

Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia. His writing on free speech has appeared in The Economist, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Jacob Mchangama
Jacob Mchangama (Twitter)

And now, a few words on "Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media," from the publisher:

A global history of free speech, from the ancient world to today

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.

Jacob will discuss his book on a live So to Speak Podcast today, Feb. 2, at 6:00 p.m. ET

So to speak podcast taping

Join First Amendment Watch and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for a virtual taping of the So to Speak Podcast with Jacob Mchangama, author of “Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media” in conversation with Greg Lukianoff, Professor Stephen D. Solomon, Sarah McLaughlin, and host Nico Perrino. Panelists will be discussing how lessons from free speech movements throughout world history can help us overcome today’s divisions over the value of free speech, and how conflicts between egalitarian and elitist schools of free speech thought are still with us in the digital age.

Registration is required.

Advance praise:

  • “A provocative exploration of a transformative political right.” ― Booklist, Starred Review
  • “[Free Speech makes] a persuasive argument that free discourse is essential to democracy, breaking down systems of oppression, and challenging existing social hierarchies… 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.” ― Publishers Weekly
  • "The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made. Jacob Mchangama never loses sight of the trouble freedom causes but always keeps in mind that lack of freedom creates horrors.” ― P.J. O’Rourke
  • “In Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama presents a compelling case for the unique, universal, enduring importance of free and equal speech for all people, regardless of their particular identities or ideologies. This fascinating account, of magisterial scope, demonstrates the constant liberating and equalizing force of free speech, throughout history and around the world. It also documents the constant censorial pressures, including many that reflect positive aims, and their inevitable suppression of full and equal human rights.” — Nadine Strossen
  • “Jacob Mchangama's panoramic exploration of the history of free speech offers a vivid, highly readable account of how today's most pitched battles over free speech reflect tensions and impulses that are as old as history itself. Mchangama persuasively dismantles the persistent claims, common to every era and technological evolution, that unprecedented new threats warrant expanded constraints on speech. This indispensable book is a must for both defenders of free speech and, even more so, for those entertaining the notion that free speech should or must be traded away in order to advance other public goods.” ― Suzanne Nossel

→ YouTube video from the publisher here

→ Kenan Malik, "Freedom of speech was too hard-won to be cavalier now about censorship," The Guardian (Jan. 30)

Ira Glasser takes on ACLU on free speech

Bill Maher: "[The ACLU is] changing. I mean it was a stalwart defender of free speech and civil liberties. Is it still that?"

Glasser: "Not as much. They just produced, a couple of years ago, new guidelines for their lawyers to use when deciding which free speech cases to take. This is a requirement now for the national ACLU lawyers. Before they take a case defending someone's free speech they have to make sure that the speech doesn't offend or threaten other civil liberties values. In other words, before they're going to defend your free speech, they want to see what you're going to say."


David Cole (ACLU)
David Cole (ACLU)

David Cole, “Defending speech we hate,” ACLU (June 6, 2021):

Has the ACLU lost its way? This appears to be a perennial question. In 1994, then-ACLU President Nadine Strossen wrote a 17-page article with 54 footnotes, responding to the charge that the organization “is abandoning its traditional commitment to free speech and other classic civil liberties and is becoming a ‘trendy’ liberal organization primarily concerned with equality and civil rights.” Sixteen years before that, in 1978, J. Anthony Lukas wrote a feature for The New York Times Magazine titled “The ACLU Against Itself,” recounting the controversy over whether the group should have represented a group of Nazis who sought to march in Skokie, Illinois. The question is not new.

Controversy ignites at Georgetown Law over tweet; Ilya Shapiro placed on administrative leave

The incoming leader of [the] Georgetown Law Center for the Constitution] has apologized after facing backlash for a series of now-deleted tweets about President Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court that the school’s dean has called “appalling.”

Ilya Shapiro, the vice president and director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, is set to begin his new role as executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution on Tuesday. Less than a week before Shapiro arrives on campus, his comments on Biden’s potential pick for the high court have drawn frustration from many in the community.

So began a Washington Post story by Lauren Lumpkin. Here is the tweet that sparked the controversy:

Excerpt from Georgetown University Policy on Speech and Expression:

As an institution of higher education, one specifically committed to the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, Georgetown University is committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas. It is Georgetown University’s policy to provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.

The ideas of different members of the University community will often and naturally conflict. It is not the proper role of a University to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Deliberation or debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill-conceived.

Statement from Dean William Treanor

Dear Members of the Georgetown Law Community,

Dean William Treanor

Over the past several days, I have heard the pain and outrage of so many at Georgetown Law, and particularly from our Black female students, staff, alumni, and faculty. Ilya Shapiro’s tweets are antithetical to the work that we do here every day to build inclusion, belonging, and respect for diversity. I have heard and listened to a wide range of views, and I am grateful to the many members of the community who have reached out to me and other leaders at the school to share their thoughts.

I am writing to inform you that I have placed Ilya Shapiro on administrative leave, pending an investigation into whether he violated our policies and expectations on professional conduct, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment, the results of which will inform our next steps. Pending the outcome of the investigation, he will remain on leave and not be on campus. This investigation will follow the procedures established by Georgetown University.

Racial stereotypes about individual capabilities and qualifications remain a pernicious force in our society and our profession. I am keenly aware that our law school is not exempt. We will continue our work with students, staff, alumni, and faculty to put in place strategies, policies, and practices to strengthen our community and our commitment to justice and equality for all. And I remain committed to working with each of you to create a community where we can all thrive.

Bill Treanor

Shapiro replies in a follow-up story from Lumpkin in The Washington Post

I’m optimistic that Georgetown’s investigation will be fair, impartial, and professional, though there’s really not much to investigate, [. . .] And I’m confident that it will reach the only reasonable conclusion: my Tweet didn’t violate any university rule or policy, and indeed is protected by Georgetown policies on free expression.

Coverage & commentary


Abridged statement from Nadine Strossen

I wrote to Georgetown Law School Dean William Treanor to stress that I have no doubt of Ilya Shapiro’s commitment to the values of equality and inclusivity for all people, based on my extensive professional collaborations and personal interactions with Ilya, since 2008. Consistent with concepts of proportionality and restorative justice, I urged that Ilya should be judged in light of his overall long, distinguished record of actions and communications, not on the basis of a few words in one Twitter stream, for which he promptly apologized. The poorly chosen words do not accurately reflect his actual views, and although such a regrettable communication is appropriately subject to strong criticism – including Ilya’s own self-criticism – they should not be the basis for any punitive action. In my letter to Dean Treanor, I focused on the general considerations of fairness and justice that support this conclusion.

This conclusion is also supported by concerns of free speech and academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s extra-mural speech on all matters of public concern, such as those at issue: speech in the faculty member’s capacity as a member of the community, and not speech in the specific job-related capacities as professor or scholar. Accordingly, FIRE (as well as other defenders of free speech and academic freedom) have consistently, correctly objected to any adverse employment action taken against any faculty member – including those, such as Ilya, who have been hired but have not yet begun to work – based on extra-mural speech, including on social media. This position holds true regardless of the ideological or other content of the extra-mural speech that prompted the employers’ sanctions.

[. . .]

Since the particular positions for which Georgetown hired Ilya Shapiro are Executive Director and Senior Lecturer at the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, his case provides an especially compelling context for Georgetown to abide by the important constitutional norms that it has committed to honor.

FIRE's Adam Steinbaugh writes Georgetown: "[D]ialogue between Shapiro and his critics must be allowed to continue."

 Georgetown Black Law Students Association calls for Shapiro's ousting

Additional news items, editorials, and commentaries  

Note: Though FAN is hosted by FIRE, its content remains editorially independent. In the case of the above-mentioned controversy — as with all such matters — no one from FIRE intervened in or influenced FAN's coverage of this story. — rklc 

Commentaries on Justice Breyer & free speech 

Journal of Free Speech Law seeking submissions 

This from Professor Eugene Volokh over at The Volokh Conspiracy:

If you have something you've been working on for the February submission cycle, submit it to us first. We require exclusive submission, but we will respond within 14 days (a promise we have so far kept for every submission that we receive)—and if you want to publish quickly, we could publish it within weeks, which is to say nine months to a year (or more) before most journals would publish it.

So far, we've published articles by (among others) Jack Balkin (Yale), Mark Lemley (Stanford), Christopher Yoo (Penn), and more. Our board of reviewers includes, among many others, Profs. Amy Adler, Vince Blasi, Erwin Chemerinsky, Jamal Greene, Michael McConnell, Robert Post, Fred Schauer, Geoffrey Stone, and Rebecca Tushnet, as well as Judges Stephanos Bibas, Jose Cabranes, Douglas Ginsburg, Raymond Randolph, Neomi Rao, Robert Sack, David Stras, Jeffrey Sutton, and Diane Wood.

We just published today David McGowan's article on rethinking New York Times v. Sullivan. Yesterday we accepted an article by Jacob Mchangama (author of the forthcoming book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media) and Natalie Alkiviadou comparing South African "hate speech" law with European law. Tomorrow, we could be accepting your article! For more on the journal, see here; to submit, go to our ScholasticaHQ page.

Webinar event with Corn-Revere, Liptak, & Strossen coming to National Constitution Center

Adam Liptak, New York Times Supreme Court reporter, and Nadine Strossen, free speech expert and author of HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, join leading First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere to explore the efforts at censoring unpopular speech throughout American history as described in Corn-Revere’s latest book, The Mind of the Censor and the Eye of the Beholder. Jeffrey Rosen, president, and CEO of the National Constitution Center, moderates.

Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, 12:00 p.m. ET (register here)

In conversation with Floyd Abrams — 'An Insider Glimpse Into the Story of the Pentagon Papers Case'

Prof. Stuart Brotman

Stuart Brotman’s book, “The First Amendment Lives On: Conversations Commemorating Hugh M. Hefner’s Legacy of Enduring Free Speech and Free Press Values,” set for publication by the University of Missouri Press in April 2022, contains eight in-depth interviews with pioneers of free speech. The excerpt below features Brotman’s conversation with Floyd Abrams, an attorney at the law firm that represented The New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case.

[. . .]

In conversation with Brotman, Abrams discusses the behind-the-scenes decision-making involved in the case and the legal challenges The Times navigated before the court.

Exchange here

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