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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 247

Jacob Mchangama on Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media (book cover)

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 Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia and the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. His writing on free speech has appeared in the Economist, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

  • the increasingly fashionable embrace of expanded government and corporate controls over speech,
  • hate speech = violence?
  • incitement to violence and the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection,
  • libel and slander,
  • self-censorship,
  • private vs. government restrictions on speech,
  • social media, tech companies, and censorship,
  • call out culture and cancel culture,
  • free expression as speech (flag burning, Madonna’s videos, etc.),
  • corporate controls on speech,
  • compelled speech,
  • Who is more censorious, the Left or the Right?
  • Frank Zappa on CNN’s Crossfire vs. conservatives,
  • how Southern legislators and congressmen adopted some of the most draconian restrictions of free speech in American history, while Southern mobs enforced a “slaver’s veto” to curb abolitionist speech and ideas;
  • how Southern demands that the Federal government and Northern states actively police abolitionist ideas kicked off a debate over first principles and the role of free speech in America,
  • how Southern “cancel culture” purged a professor critical of slavery from the University of North Carolina,
  • why Frederick Douglass believed that “The right of speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed,”
  • how the civil rights movement and its civil libertarian allies advanced group rights of discriminated minorities through the dramatic expansion of constitutionally protected individual rights, not least First Amendment freedoms,
  • how the British used laws against sedition and hate speech to target anti-colonial movements and silence dissidents like Mahatma Gandhi,
  • how mass surveillance and censorship justified by war became useful tools for more general surveillance,
  • 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 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?
  • the future of free speech.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on February 8, 2022.

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