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FREE SPEECH: A History from Socrates to Social Media

March 2, 2022 @ 12:30 pm 2:00 pm


Free speech around the world today is in retreat.

Authoritarian and nationalist figures from Narendra Modi in India to Viktor Orbán in Hungary are silencing dissenting voices in an effort to entrench power.

Even in democracies, where it is hailed as the “first freedom” and a bedrock democratic value, the free speech debate is weaponized by the political left and right, as different groups aim to curtail it on college campuses, in classrooms, and on digital platforms — undermining the very culture of tolerance and open-mindedness on which this freedom ultimately depends.

Join author Jacob Mchangama for a conversation on the global history of free speech, from the ancient world to today.

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In FREE SPEECH: A History from Socrates to Social Media (Basic Books; On sale February 8, 2022), Jacob Mchangama offers a definitive account of this transformative idea, from the ancient world to the digital age, and in the process establishes why defending free speech is so critical today. History shows that the free exchange of ideas is essential not only to the spread of knowledge and innovation, but also to upholding the values so cherished by democratic nations.

Moreover, despite contemporary debates, the practice and principle of free speech has been instrumental in ensuring the equality and dignity of marginalized and voiceless groups, while censorship and repression has been the weapon of choice of oppressors, authoritarians and supremacists.

“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 this sweeping history, Mchangama includes a global cast of free speech defenders, including the great liberal
philosopher John Stuart Mill, the trailblazing Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes, the ninth-century freethinker al-Rāzī, the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and the campaigner for Indian independence Mahatma Gandhi.

Through their captivating stories and others, he reveals how the free exchange of ideas underlies all intellectual achievement and has enabled the advancement of both freedom and equality worldwide.

Mchangama has spent a decade advocating for free speech in the press and as a member of the Danish government’s independent commission on free speech. In FREE SPEECH, he establishes just how much humanity has gained from the spread of this powerful idea, and just how much we stand to lose if we allow for its erosion in the digital age.

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 many other outlets around the world. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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