The Endless Struggle Between Censorship and Free Speech
By Stephen RohdeMarch 16, 2022
Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama
One such law, the Order of June 14, 1643, was the result of what Parliament called recent “abuses and frequent disorders in Printing,” including “false forged, scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and government.” It decreed that no such publication could be printed or sold unless first approved and licensed by the official Stationers’ Company. Various authorities were authorized and required, from time to time, to make “diligent search” of all places in which such “scandalous or unlicensed” were printed and to “seize and carry away such Printing Presses,” which were to be “defaced and made unserviceable according to Ancient Custom.” Furthermore, the authorities were instructed to “apprehend All Authors, Printers, and other persons” involved in printing such publications so “they may receive such further punishments, as their Offences shall demerit.”
This 1643 Order sparked an outspoken response from one of England’s greatest poets, John Milton. His Areopagitica would become a classic defense of free speech. While Milton would not publish his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, for another quarter-century, he had already established himself as an important author of poetry and prose. In 1638, at the age of 30, he was profoundly affected by meeting Galileo Galilei, the victim of repression, then under house arrest in Florence. Seven years later, in Areopagitica, Milton wrote that he had “found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
The central argument in Areopagitica was that censorship leads to “the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities, in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made, both in religious and civil wisdom.” In a memorable passage which has inspired free speech proponents for centuries, Milton boldly declared, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
Milton is but one of the scores of colorful and consequential figures across the centuries whom Jacob Mchangama describes in his smart, insightful, and astute new book, Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Spanning over 40 centuries, from the obscure Egyptian Instruction of Ptah-Hotep in 2350 BCE to the online conspiracy theories that fomented the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capital and the ongoing repercussions of the Big Lie perpetuated on social media, Mchangama provides a sweeping and lively account, rich in historical detail from societies around the world, exploring how the forces of authority and control — religious, political, ideological, economic, social, and cultural — relentlessly seek to impose restrictions on what people can think, write, and say, while the human instincts to freely express ourselves, to learn, and to spread new ideas, valiantly and persistently resist. It is a bittersweet history, ebbing and flowing with cruel acts of brutal repression and censorship relieved by brave acts of defiance and truth-telling. We are reminded that free speech is never permanently won or lost.
For Mchangama, founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia, host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, and a visiting scholar in 2018 at Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression Center, “[f]ree speech is still an experiment, and no one can guarantee the outcome of providing a free, equal, and instant voice to billions of people.” Nevertheless, he argues that “a careful look at history suggests that the experiment is a noble one” and that for all its flaws, “a world with less free speech will also be less tolerant, democratic, enlightened, innovative, free, and fun.”
Mchangama is an astute and skeptical historian. He is keenly aware that the struggles over free speech and censorship are filled with the subjective experiences and divergent opinions, biases, prejudices, jealousies, delusions, motivations, ambitions, and mixed emotions that define what it is to be human.
Take John Milton himself for example. While Mchangama correctly places him in the pantheon of free speech heroes, even Milton had his blind spots. Despite the lofty and universal words in Areopagitica extolling the virtues of “all learning” and “the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” Milton’s lifelong anti-Catholic intolerance cramped his defense of free speech. Out of one side of his mouth, Milton insisted that the “knowledge of good is so involv’d and interwoven with the knowledge of evil” that we know “good by evil.” Through exposure and confrontation, Milton argued, we come in contact with what is foreign and challenging, which “purifies us [by] trial.” But out of the other side of his mouth, in the very same essay, he reassured his fellow Protestants that by press freedom, “I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate,” and he refused to offer shelter to ideas that were “impious or evil […] against faith or manners.”
Indeed, a careful reading of Areopagitica reveals that it was hardly a categorical condemnation of all censorship. Milton opposed the requirement that publications be approved and licensed before they were published — an impermissible prior restraint — but once unlicensed books, which Milton labeled “mischievous and libelous,” were published, their fate was “the fire and the executioner.” In 1650, he praised the enactment of a blasphemy ban and eventually, propelled by his dogmatic religious and political beliefs, he even joined the corps of licensors.
Mchangama calls this “Milton’s Curse” and cites it frequently throughout his book. “That Milton — the scourge of censors — would become a licensor himself is indeed one of the great ironies of the history of free speech,” he writes. As Mchangama artfully describes time and again, “‘Milton’s Curse’ — the selective and unprincipled defense of free speech — would afflict many other great champions of free speech in the centuries to come, and remains a recurrent theme today.” Despite Milton’s own myopia, his treatise was later cited in the Parliamentary debates culminating with the end of licensing in 1695, some 20 years after his death, and was part of the revolutionary canon when the Founders made the case for free speech in the United States, leading to the adoption of our First Amendment.
Nat Hentoff, the acerbic syndicated columnist for the Village Voice, aptly captured his version of “Milton’s Curse” in the title of his 1992 book, Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. Thirty years later, little has changed. In fact, as Mchangama skillfully shows, in the almost 400 years since Areopagitica, little has changed.
Mchangama describes how
the roots of free speech are ancient, deep, and sprawling. The Athenian statesman Pericles extolled the democratic values of open debate and tolerance of social dissent as early as 431 BCE. In the ninth century CE, the irreverent freethinker Ibn al-Rawandi used the fertile intellectual climate of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate to audaciously question prophecy and holy books. In 1582 the Dutchman Dirck Coornhert insisted that it was “tyrannical to … forbid good books in order to squelch the truth.” The first legal protection of press freedom was instituted in Sweden in 1766, and in 1770 Denmark became the first country in the world to abolish any and all censorship.
Yet, as Mchangama vividly illustrates across time and diverse societies, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Free speech entropy follows free speech expansion. “The leaders of any political system — no matter how enlightened,” Mchangama observes, “inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far.” Coornhert was exiled, and his work was banned on numerous occasions. Sweden’s and Denmark’s experiments with press freedom didn’t last long as repressive rulers took control of the printing presses.
Every new communications technology “is inevitably disruptive and every new advancement — from the printing press to the internet — has been opposed by those whose institutional authority is vulnerable to being undermined by sudden change,” Mchangama writes. Always providing appropriate examples to illustrate his perspectives, he notes that in 1525 the great humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, himself a “prodigious writer,” lamented that printers “fill the world with pamphlets and books … foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive.” In 1858, The New York Times worried that the transatlantic telegraph was “[s]uperficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.” And in November 2020, even former President Barack Obama declared the information architecture of the internet “the single biggest threat to our democracy.”
As Mchangama sees it, these “outbreaks of ‘elite panic’” tend to erupt “whenever the public sphere is expanded and previously marginalized groups are given a voice.” He writes:
Upon the introduction of new technology that gives access to those previously unheard, the traditional gatekeepers of public opinion fear that the newcomers will manipulate the masses through dangerous ideas and propaganda, threatening the established social and political order.
Mchangama sees this as the recurring clash between an “egalitarian” versus an “elitist” conception of free speech. And “while there have always been those who thought of free speech as a luxury only fit to be enjoyed by an educated elite,” he writes,
there have also been those prepared to fight a long and often bloody struggle to expand free speech to include the poor and propertyless, foreigners, women, and religious, racial, ethnic, national, and sexual minorities. All of whom were once thought too credulous, fickle, immoral, ignorant, or dangerous to have a voice in public affairs.
Mchangama fills his book with fresh and indelible portraits of many of these free speech heroes, including the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, James Madison, and George Orwell. But lest one assume Mchangama is only plowing familiar fields, we also learn about more obscure champions of free speech, such as the ninth-century Persian al-Razi, John Lilburne, the Scottish Thomas Gordon, the 18th-century French philosophe Marquis de Condoret, and his contemporary, the bold Olympe de Gouges. And he describes the important contributions to the advancement of free speech made by figures largely known for their other accomplishments, like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela.
It would be impossible to describe the vast array of pivotal historical events and remarkable people Mchangama covers in his sprawling narrative, but a few episodes should serve to whet readers’ appetites.
In 399 BCE, Socrates became the first recorded martyr for free speech. While historians have long debated why the Athenians executed the 70-year-old Socrates, who had been speaking his mind for decades, almost 20 years after the execution his devoted pupil Plato would write that his teacher had declared he was condemned to death because of “the speeches I make,” including his outspoken criticism of “the way magistrates were chosen by lot rather than by election based on wealth or expertise.”
Centuries later, in 44 BCE, as Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life, senator Cato the Younger committed suicide “rather than accept a pardon for opposing Caesar’s dictatorship.” In a version dramatized later by Greco-Roman historian Cassius Dio, as “Cato stabs himself and pulls out his own intestines,” he cries out, “I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead.” Soon after, Caesar himself was stabbed to death by a conspiracy of republican senators.
Soon after Caesar’s death, Cicero, an accomplished Roman orator and successful lawyer, drew the ire of Marc Antony for championing a return to traditional republican government. “Cicero was all in favor of free speech and political liberty,” Mchangama tells us, “as long as the elite remained in control and tended to the welfare of the republic on behalf of the lower classes. For Cicero, free speech meant free speech for the ‘best men’ in the Senate, not the plebs, who were ‘ready to suck the treasury dry,’ nor the “artisans, shopkeepers and that scum.’” These distinctions meant little to Marc Antony, who ordered Cicero killed (along with hundreds of other enemies of the state). Cicero’s severed head and hands were put on display at the speaker platform in the Forum, for all to see the fate of one who spoke against those in power.
Around 30–33 CE, Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced to death by the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. His crime? According to the Christian Gospels, it was the Jewish charge of blasphemy, while modern-day scholars cite the Roman charge of sedition. Either way, he was punished for the expression of his beliefs.
One of the most revealing aspects of Mchangama’s book is the attention he devotes to the Middle Ages, during which medieval Europe saw the construction of a “machinery of persecution” that hounded heretics — real and perceived — while the Islamic world was home “to the most daring freethinkers of the age,” such as the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE, which, following the death of the prophet Muhammad a century years earlier, “contributed vastly to expanding the limits of medieval thought and reason and preserving the learning of the ancient world.”
Elsewhere, the “dark age” of the seventh and eighth centuries was marked by “stifling orthodoxy and iconoclasm,” as science “withered away.” Mchangama notes that 90 percent of the Greek titles we know from secondary sources perished, and an incredible 99 percent of classical Latin literature disappeared. Fortunately, a small team of dedicated scholars and monks painstakingly copied the few remaining manuscripts within cloistered Christian monasteries, while Muslim scholars, such as the renowned 12th-century philosopher Averroes, preserved classical literature in Arabic translations.
“As philosophical, scientific, and medical works of Greek and Islamic origin were introduced in the West,” Mchangama writes, “they became core curriculum at [the] new universities” established in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, “radically changing the content of scholarship and challenging traditional Christian preconceptions of the world.” Still, no right to free speech was recognized at this point in history, and according to Mchangama, “medieval limits to freethinking and the academic pursuit of truth were formidable from a modern perspective.”
The first documented case of academic censure occurred in 1206 at the University of Paris, “when the Aristotelean philosopher and theologian Amalric of Bène was found guilty of false and heretical teaching for advocating pantheism, the belief that God is everything. Condemned by the pope, he was forced to recant his views in front of his academic peers.” Then,
[i]n 1210, a provincial council ordered ten of Amalric’s followers burned at the stake. The same council banned Aristotle’s natural philosophy, which was becoming increasingly popular at Paris’s Faculty of Arts, ruling that “neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy nor their commentaries are to be taught at Paris in public or privately.”
Finally, in 1228, Pope Gregory IX accused the masters of theology of “committing adultery with philosophical doctrines.”
The medieval Inquisition of the 13th and 14th centuries was an important factor in instituting what British historian R. I. Moore has called a “persecuting society” dedicated to eradicating heresy. Mchangama reminds us that “the idea of having a choice in matters of religious belief has been the exception for much of human history.” In fact, the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek word hairesis, which means “choice,” while the word “religion” comes from the Latin ligare, meaning “to tie or bind.” Mchangama devotes considerable attention to the gruesome and systematic persecution of heretics during the Spanish, Portuguese, Venetian, and Roman Inquisitions, highlighting the stories of brave individuals who fought and died for expressing their beliefs.
Advances in the technology of printing, with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention around 1450 of a technique for mass-producing books, brought an extraordinary growth in the dissemination of knowledge and information and concomitantly greater efforts at censorship and repression. By 1500, there were 1,700 printing workshops “from Lisbon to Kraków and from Stockholm to Cosenza in southern Italy,” producing “ million books between 1501 and 1550 and […] more than 138 million between 1551 and 1600.” Prices eventually dropped substantially. Mchangama observes that “[i]n 1424, a manuscript had been worth as much as a farm or a vineyard.” By the 1530s, “a pamphlet cost the same as a loaf of bread.”
“Sensing the disruptive potential of this new technology,” Mchangama writes, “the Church and secular authorities sought to retain their positions as the gatekeepers of knowledge, information, and communications” through ever-expanding laws, censorship commissions, and papal bulls. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII ordered the whole of Christendom to stop “the misuse of the printing press for the distribution of pernicious writing,” and in 1515 Pope Leo X “prohibited printers from publishing anything without prior authorization.”
In keeping with one of Mchangama’s overarching themes, he describes how Martin Luther survived the efforts of Church leaders to silence him for publishing his famous list of 95 theses in 1517 condemning the selling of papal indulgences and criticizing the Church more broadly. Yet in 1528 Luther turned around and urged authorities in Saxony “to ban the buying and reading of books written by Anabaptists,” and in 1530 he “promoted the death penalty for sedition and blasphemy.” His intolerance became even more extreme in his final years when, in his antisemitic pamphlet The Jews and Their Lies, he urged that “rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb” and encouraged his readers to “set fire to their synagogues.” As Mchangama shows time and again, “Luther was not the last person to appeal to freedom when facing persecution, only to persecute other dissenters once in a position of power and influence.”
Mchangama tells many vivid stories like these as he traces conflicts between free speech and censorship during the splintering of Christendom, the Counter-Reformation, the seeds of Enlightenment, the radicals of the Dutch Golden Age, England’s forgotten martyrs, the expanding Republic of Letters, Puritanical intolerance, political heresy in revolutionary France, the pamphlet wars between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, the Alien and Sedition Acts within a few years of the adoption of the First Amendment, the European revolutions of 1848, the role of free speech in opposing slavery and colonialism, black codes and red scares, totalitarianism and fascism, the emergence of human rights, McCarthyism, the fight for civil rights in America and South Africa, and the coming the erosion of free speech. He brings every era of world history to life through the lens of the endless conflict between the yearning to think and speak freely and the repressive forces of orthodoxy and conformity.
Mchangama’s ambitious project culminates in his final chapters, in which he examines the internet, the future of free speech, and what he calls the current “free speech recession.”
He sees the late 1970s through the early 2000s as “a Golden Age of free speech unsurpassed in human history, aided by new communications technology such as digital broadcast, satellite TV, and — most consequently — the World Wide Web.” According to Freedom House, “the world’s share of free countries surged from 32 percent in 1979 to 46 percent in 2003,” with “the percentage of countries with press freedom growing from 25 to 41 percent.”
In the “most utopian and techno-optimistic days of the internet,” Mchangama suggest that the questions “What are the limits of online free speech?” and “Who decides them?” would have been answered, respectively, none and yourself. He cites John Perry Barlow’s bold 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
The architect of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, anticipated that individual users would filter content according to their own preferences, because “when someone imposes involuntary filters on someone else, that is censorship.” According to a 2012 study, “social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprisings.”
Yet, many of these efforts, including the Arab Spring, were brutally repressed. “Only 13 percent of the world’s 7.4 billion people enjoyed free speech, while 45 percent lived in countries where censorship was the norm.” Citing international surveys that found that “media censorship intensified in a record-breaking thirty-seven countries in 2019,” Mchangama believes we are experiencing a “free speech recession.”
As he has ably shown, over the centuries “free speech has always been the first target of authoritarians who intend to subvert democracy.” Once “the immune system of free speech is compromised, more encroachments are sure to follow,” citing the systematic erosion of free speech in Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil, India, Russia, and China.
Although Mchangama calls 21st-century America “the most speech protective of any nation on Earth,” it has not escaped the free speech recession. He cites data to support his contention that “the consensus around free speech as a secular article of faith seemed to break down during the presidency of Donald Trump, as hyperpartisan political tribalism became ever more unforgiving and heterodoxy was treated as heresy.” Granted, millions of people actively exercised their First Amendment rights to speak out against Trump’s policies and filled the streets to protest against police killings. But Mchangama observes that “unlike the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, many proponents of racial justice saw free speech as a threat to, rather than a precondition for, justice and equality.”
Mchangama’s entire project describing the free speech battles over the centuries may be viewed as simply a prologue to his full-throated criticism of contemporary efforts across the political spectrum to limit free speech in the name of advancing a particular agenda. On the left, he cites examples in which activists have called for “deplatforming people whose opinions were deemed hostile to, or even insufficiently supportive of, racial justice,” such as a letter signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty members, employees, and students demanding the establishment of a faculty committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication.” Or when Tulane University apologized and cancelled a virtual debate about a book on the KKK, which was in fact critical of white supremacy, in response to objections that the discussion was “inappropriate” and “violent towards the experience of Black people.” Mchangama is deeply concerned by surveys showing that among “extremely liberal” students, “13 percent thought violence to stop a speech or event on campus was ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ acceptable, while 60 percent thought it was ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ acceptable to shout down a speaker with opposing views.” He notes these findings with alarm “given how radical socialist professors were purged from American elite universities in the early twentieth century.”
But Mchangama is quick to point out that conservatives engage in their fair share of the “cancel culture” to which they so indignantly object when their ox is being gored. Professors critical of Israel, Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence have been subject to cancelling efforts. In a 2018 poll, “44 percent of Republicans agreed that the president (Trump at the time) should have the power to close down news outlets for ‘bad behavior,’ and 48 percent of Republicans considered the media ‘enemies of the people.’” Mchangama cites several states in which Republican legislatures have proposed or passed laws “removing critical race theory from classrooms, willfully ignoring that government-mandated restrictions on curricula in and of themselves create the risk of establishing a particular form of ideological orthodoxy.” In Tennessee, “a proposed bill would prohibit textbooks that promote, normalize, support, or address … LGBT issues or lifestyles” (wording, Mchangama notes, “chillingly similar” to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, prohibiting “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”).
In the end, Mchangama offers his strongest defense for the broadest protection for free speech. Conceding that dangerous and hateful speech may lead to real-life harm, especially given the enormous scope of online expression, he argues that it “does not necessarily follow that placing restrictions on free speech is an effective remedy.” In fact, he cites studies showing that “on the whole, freedom of expression is associated with less rather than more violent extremism and social conflict in democracies.” The “preventive effect of free speech on terrorist attacks seems particularly strong and conversely, suppression may actually serve to amplify rather than silence hate speech.” A 2017 study found that “violent far-right extremism in Western Europe was partly fueled by ‘extensive public repression of radical right actors and opinion.’” When Trump’s Facebook account was locked indefinitely after January 6, “it attracted almost 150,000 new likes within a week.” “The withdrawal of extremists from popular forums,” Mchangama writes, “not only impedes the efforts of law enforcement agencies to track down future attacks but also hinders targeted counterspeech, which some studies have shown to be effective in reducing hate speech.”
“Lost in the incessant focus on the darker sides of free speech — real, perceived, and exaggerated,” Mchangama warns, “are the profound benefits of free and open discourse, from toppling of absolutist rulers to the cross-fertilization of knowledge across cultures and the defeat of institutional racism and discrimination.” Drawing on the thinking of people like Spinoza, Cato, Madison, Constant, and Douglass, he argues that “we jeopardize those benefits if we are unwilling to accept any of the harms or costs that inevitably accompany free expression.”
Mchangama confronts the notion that free speech is somehow the enemy of the movements for racial justice and equal rights for all. “[C]ensorship and suppression of speech has been instrumental in sustaining the systemic repression of minorities and other oppressed groups.” While many marginalized groups remain deeply skeptical about the role of the internet and social media, where hatred can be amplified, “the digital space has in many and important ways strengthened the voice and agency of minorities and vulnerable groups.” Purging hatred and intolerance “is a tempting strategy to ensure the dignity and equality of those minorities who bear the brunt of organized hate speech,” but “the centrality of censorship and repression in the maintenance of white supremacy and colonialism, and the key role of dissent and persuasion in the dismantling thereof, should remind us of Frederick Douglass’s words that ‘the right of speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed.’” In fact, Mchangama confidently asserts that “free speech may well be the most powerful engine of equality ever devised by humankind.”
He is insistent that liberal democracies must come to terms with the fact that given 21st-century technology, “one cannot effectively shield citizens and institutions from hostile propaganda, hateful content, or disinformation without compromising the egalitarian and liberal values of democracy as such.” Citing “a whole cottage industry [that] has sprung up to map, analyze, and counter disinformation and propaganda, just as innovative activists and journalists are using online open-source intelligence and data to expose the criminal deeds and human rights violations of authoritarian states,” Mchangama urges that “democracies and their citizens must rediscover the enormous potential of free and equal speech and harness it to the benefit of liberal democratic values.” And he describes scores of groups that are doing just that across the world.
As he has shown time and again, Mchangama emphasizes that “societal threats to free speech can be as stifling as government-imposed censorship,” yet “determining whether private action undermines or is an exercise of the culture of free speech can be difficult.” There is a fundamental difference between reacting to ideas one loathes with criticism and scorn — thereby expanding the give-and-take which is at the heart of free speech — and demanding that certain ideas be purged, canceled, and deplatformed and those who espouse them be punished with loss of livelihood or disciplinary sanctions. “Eternal vigilance against both encroaching state power as well as the opaque, automated, centralized privatized control of speech,” Mchangama writes, “will be required for free expression to fulfill its promise as a necessary precondition for democracy, freedom, and equality.”
In the end, as Mchangama has brilliantly shown, it is up to each one of us
to defend a culture tolerant of heretical ideas, use our system of “open vigilance” to limit the reach of disinformation, agree to disagree without resorting to harassment or hate, and treat free speech as a principle to be upheld universally rather than a prop to be selectively invoked for narrow tribalist point scoring.
It is an admonition we must never forget.
Stephen Rohde is a retired constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.
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