Alan Kirker


July 31st, 2022 by

In “Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media” (2022), author Jacob Mchangama traces its roots from ancient Greek Athenian notions of Isegoria, public or civic speech; and Parrhesia, the frank and uninhibited language of everyday interaction. These became the “egalitarian foundations and participatory principles” of democratic systems of government, and from which the ability to criticise one’s own government is still democracy’s key litmus test (2022, p. 13, 14).

Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press that enabled the wide spread of ideas, many of which called into question the very assumptions on which the social order of Europe was founded. Subsequent beheadings, burnings, and hand-lopping resulted from religious crimes of blasphemy and heresy, often seen as “joined at the hip” with political crimes including sedition and treason. Censorship was based on an underlying concept that “words and actions are indistinguishable, and that the former can be every bit as harmful as the latter” (2022, p. 75, 78). Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice of censorship passed from church to state, and when Europe’s coffeehouses hosted patrons based not on wallet or bloodline, but on the intellect that was brought to the table, free speech was ultimately declared “the great bulwark of liberty”, only soon to become the rallying cry of revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic (2022, p. 119, 129).

After centuries of absolutism, Europe’s public had little experience with uninhibited discourse outside philosophical circles, whereas America’s “more vibrant public sphere” had early roots. Political tribalism meant a clash between egalitarian and elitist notions of free speech could lead reasonable and well-informed citizens to become rowdy and rebellious, often at alcohol-fuelled gatherings. Division arose between a Federalist desire for more restraints on speech versus a Republican concern over the danger in centralizing power. Thomas Jefferson struck a unifying tone, stating “reason must be left to combat errors of opinion” (2022, p. 202), so that free speech could become a vehicle for cohesion, not strife and treason.

Unfortunately, the US Bill of Rights did not extend to the member states, and thus to the cotton fields, although print enabled many women, including author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher, to join the battle for rights in a war which was normally the preserve of men. Social reformer and escaped slave Frederick Douglass called free speech a “moral renovator”, and later, activist and politician John Lewis acknowledged that without it, the US Civil Rights movement would have been a “bird without wings” (2022, p. 239, 241, 299).

In France, the 1814 press law required publications to obtain royal sanction. In Britain, speech crimes discriminated on the basis of class, with a government increasingly focused on threats to social order as opposed to dangerous ideas, while in the early twentieth-century colonies of Hong Kong, India, and Africa, discrimination was based on language, ethnicity, and race. The totalitarian methods George Orwell warned about encouraging, as they could eventually be used against them, reveals a broader question of free speech’s slippery slope, leading Mchangama to wonder:

Should open societies be more afraid of totalitarian movements abusing free speech to destroy freedom itself, or of democratic governments abusing the limits on free speech and unwittingly forging the chains with which authoritarians may fetter all speech once in power?” (2022, p. 258).

Hitler’s propaganda tool of the Second World War, found to be most effective on the young and impressionable, was really the gradual erosion of the German language. Mchangama references German-Jewish linguist Victor Klemperer, who stated words can be “tiny doses of arsenic”:

Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed upon them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously… Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all” (2022, p. 285).

In 1948, following the Second World War and based upon Roosevelt’s four freedoms, the first of which reads: “The First is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world” (1941, p. 304), then drawing largely from the input of his widow, Eleanor, the newly established United Nations drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 provides that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (2022, p. 289). Media law professor Eric Barendt reiterates further this article helps sustain “individual access to uninhibited public debate” and is thus an “integral aspect of each individual’s right to self-development and fulfillment” (2005, p. 2).

Barendt, E. (2005), Freedom of Speech, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, book review in the Integrated Journal of Law and Legal Jurisprudence Studies, (pp. 1 – 8). [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from

Mchangama, J. (2022) Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. New York, United States: Basic Books – Hachette Book Group.

Roosevelt, F. D. (1941), The Four Freedoms, from his address to Congress, January 6, 1941, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (p. 304). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

United Nations (1948), Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from


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