Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court

February 23, 2023 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang are Asian-American rock stars who notoriously took a First Amendment case to the Supreme Court. Using music, the two will share their journey to Washington DC, but this presentation will also discuss reappropriation and freedom of expression.

About Simon Tam

Simon Tam is an author, musician, activist, and self-proclaimed troublemaker. Best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band, Simon approaches arts and activism with radical optimism and compassion. In 2017, he won a landmark case at the U.S Supreme Court, unanimously, helping to expand civil liberties for marginalized groups. His work has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across over 150 countries, including Rolling Stone, TIME, NPR, BBC, and the New York Times.

About Joe X. Jiang

Joe X. Jiang is a filmmaker and musician who has called Portland, OR home for a decade. His movies, which range from intimate documentaries to artistic narratives, have been featured at film and art festivals around the world. His most recent project, The Cutting Shadow, was screened at the 2017 San Diego Asian Film Festival and showcased at multiple festivals in 2018. As a musician, Joe performs in several bands, including The Slants, and is also a producer.


Arts & Krimes by Krimes Screening

December 15 @ 7:00 pm 9:00 pm

Join us for a virtual screening of the award-winning documentary Arts & Krimes by Krimes. While locked-up for six years in federal prison, artist Jesse Krimes secretly creates monumental works of art—including an astonishing 40-foot mural made with prison bed sheets, hair gel, and newspaper. He smuggles out each panel piece-by-piece with the help of fellow artists, only seeing the mural in totality upon coming home. As Jesse’s work captures the art world’s attention, he struggles to adjust to life outside, living with the threat that any misstep will trigger a life sentence.

Art & Krimes by Krimes is directed by Alysa Nahmias, produced by Amanda Spain, Benjamin Murray, and Alysa Nahmias, executive produced by Sheila Nevins, Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Patty Quillin, Hallee Adelman & Ivy Herman, and co-executive produced by Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman, Ruth Ann Harnisch, and Sheri Sobrato-Brisson.

Watch the trailer

About Frank Blazquez

Frank Blazquez is a visual artist working in portraiture, documentary film, and mixed-media. With multiple essays published in The Guardian, he is also a writer. Blazquez focuses on counter-narratives across the American Southwest and tropes related to Latinx culture along the US-Mexico border. The creator demonstrates his experiences connected to urgency and rehabilitation. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting Blazquez’s portraiture and his artwork was recently displayed in State of the Art 2020: an exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

For those looking to disrupt, to make good trouble, or to create social change, remember this important principle: movement creates friction. And, perhaps no civil liberty creates more friction than freedom of speech.

It isn’t easy to present unconventional ideas when the world stubbornly prefers the status quo. Being a catalyst means you will upset someone’s norms. Even someone who shares the same values as you might disagree with your tactics. But here’s a universal law that is shared in the world of science, art, and activism: friction isn’t always a bad thing.

Friction can be a useful force to slow you down so that you exercise more caution. Whether you are slipping on ice or self-conceit, an opposing force can prevent a fall.

Friction can also be used to generate heat and electricity. You can get warmth if you rub your hands together quickly, in the same way that rough opposition can ignite support in important ways.

Friction can also be used to test the strength of something. In the same vein, it is through challenge that the resolve and effectiveness of your ideas will be forged.

Of course, friction isn’t always pleasant. But as a famous African proverb states, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”

Freedom of expression sometimes creates friction with other people, but it almost certainly guarantees that friction is present when it comes to challenging the government. And it is in the best interest of the government, as it is in the people whom it serves, to do everything possible to protect that right. After all, dissent is patriotic. And when it comes to protecting our liberties, it is important to distinguish the difference between what we need and what we like. We like to hear things that we already agree with—but we need to be able to engage in civil discourse without worrying about backlash from the government. 

It’s often unfortunate that debates around the First Amendment are often framed in the most extreme of circumstances: the speech of political candidates, how people perceive the reach of social media, the display of confederate flags on state property, and so on. However, when political issues cater to and are framed by the outer edges, the deepest impact is felt by the middle. While people may fall across the spectrum, there’s a general consensus that racism and hateful ideas shouldn’t be tolerated, so it’s less of a conflict of values and more of a disagreement on the possible solutions. However, my own story is a cautionary tale against trading in civil liberties in exchange for comfort or convenience. 

Simon Tam in front of the United States Supreme Court. Simon Tam

For years, I was engaged in a deep fight for the right to register the trademark for my Asian American band, The Slants. But therein lies the problem: The Trademark Office believed that our ethnicity provided the context to turn an ordinarily neutral word, “slant,” into a racial slur. Evidently, someone in the government didn’t like our use of the term. Neither our intention to reappropriate it nor our community’s support for it mattered—so much so that they dismissed any legitimate evidence that disagreed with their decision. 

The government’s conviction on this was strong enough to justify suppressing the protected speech of multiple traditionally marginalized communities. They allowed the Trademark Office to use false claims in their legal brief without accountability. They were even allowed to justify the use of my racial and ethnic identity as the primary reason for connecting us with a racial slur. All because the government didn’t like what we had to say. We were creating too much friction.

The stubborn pushback from the Trademark Office wasn’t all that surprising – government offices often have the incentive to maintain the status quo, to reduce friction, so to speak. Eventually, that case landed before the United States Supreme Court, where we won unanimously because of the First Amendment. While the case eventually ended in victory, it took eight years of my life and cost countless resources—years I’ll never get back. No one should ever have to go through something like that – but that’s what happens when the power of the censor rests in the hands of the government. 

We shouldn’t let the fear of the uncomfortable, such as someone using speech you disagree with,  justify the suppression of rights for others—especially when the power to silence comes from the government. We have other options to show our distaste for ideas: to protest, to debate in the marketplace of ideas, and to vote with our dollars in the marketplace of economic exchange. These options are essential for democracy.

True equity isn’t achieved by sweeping government actions that negatively affect some communities more than others. The restriction of speech disproportionately hurts the marginalized and the powerless. There is power in allowing civil discourse to take place, as it is the primary means for overcoming fascism and oppression. 

We should not discourage people from using wit, irony, or reappropriation to disarm the malicious. Unfortunately, the debate on free speech has almost always focused on those who abuse it. We know that the cost of free speech sometimes means having disagreeable speech. But the price that is paid for censorship is carried on the backs of the underprivileged. 

The Slants album cover art. Simon Tam.

An example of this is artistic expression, something that has continuously been understood as deserving the highest forms of protection under the First Amendment. Over the past few decades, prosecutors have been using violent, crime-laden lyrics of amateur rappers as confessions to crimes, threats of violence, evidence of gang affiliation, or revelations of criminal motive- and many judges and juries have gone along with it. The same approach has not been adopted with murder ballads (a popular form of country music), other genres of music, or other forms of artistic expression. It’s a perfect example of Orwell’s satire in play: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

We often take civil liberties and our First Amendment freedoms for granted, but they aren’t protected as they should be. A guarantee on paper is only as good as the people willing to ensure that those freedoms are made real. We need persistent awareness and troublemakers willing to fight these battles for other people to ensure our rights are available. 

So as you create movement in your life, ask what you can do with your friction: Do you need to check your ego, heat things up, or test the strength of your resolve? Once you understand the kind of internal opposition that you’re facing, you’ll have better external options for moving forward. And, if you’re creating a movement for your community, ask yourself: are you the friction? How can you use and create more resistance to bring more justice for all?

By Simon Tam

Simon Tam is an author, musician, and activist. He is best known as the founder and bassist of the first all-Asian American rock band, The Slants. He helped expand civil liberties for minorities by winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for a landmark case, Matal v. Tam, in 2017. He also leads The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit that supports arts and activism projects for underrepresented communities. In 2019, he published his memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court, which was named “One of the Best Books on the Constitution of All Time” by BookAuthority and won an award for Best Autobiography/Memoir from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

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Round Table with Kennebec County Politicians

October 19 @ 6:00 pm 8:00 pm

On October 19 at 6:00 pm, join us for a round table discussion between local politicians! Constituents in Kennebec County will have the opportunity to engage with their local reps on the state and local levels from Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop, and Hallowell.

* FAM would like to thank the officials and candidates from both political parties who chose to respond to our invitation.

When: Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Where: First Amendment Museum, 184 State Street, Augusta, ME.

Time: 6:00 PM

Free to attend!

About the Participants

Linda Conti
City Councilor, Augusta

Linda Conti is a member of the Maine Bar. She recently retired from a long and rewarding legal career at the Maine Attorney General’s Office. She is a resident of Augusta and currently is serving her eighth year on the Augusta City Council representing the residents of Ward 1.


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Matt Pouliot
State Senator, Augusta

Bio Coming Soon

Charlotte Warren
State Representative, Hallowell

Charlotte Warren is finishing her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives serving Hallowell, Manchester, and West Gardiner. She has served for six years as the house chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. She was recently appointed by the Speaker of the House to serve as the House Chair for Maine’s Commission to Examine the Reestablishment of Parole. Warren previously served on the Judiciary Committee and as the house chair of Maine's Mental Health Working Group. She served on the Hallowell City Council for 12 years, including four as mayor.

Warren is currently running for County Commissioner to represent Kennebec County District 2

Thomas Harnett
State Representative, Gardiner

Thomas Harnett is serving his second term in the Maine State Legislature representing House District #83. He currently is the House Chair of the Judiciary Committee. Prior to his service in state government, he served as the Mayor of the City of Gardiner for six years and as a member of the City Council for one year. Harnett is a past President of the then Maine Bar Foundation and served on the Justice Action Group and the Committee on Volunteer Legal Services.


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Sarah Fuller
Town Council Chair, Winthrop

Bio Coming Soon

William Bridgeo
Candidate for Maine State House District 60

William "Bill" Bridgeo retired in 2021 after serving for twenty-three years as Augusta's city manager. Prior to that he spent six years as city manager of Calais, Maine and eleven years as city manager of Canandaigua, New York. Bill is a longstanding adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine at Augusta and has served on the boards of the Maine Municipal Association, the Kennebec Valley YMCA, the Friends of the Blaine House, and the Maine Development Foundation. He was president of the board of the New York Municipal Management Association and a charter member of the Board of Regents of the International City Management Association University.

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    10 Tips to a Civil Conversation—and, Actually Change Someone’s Mind

    Family get-togethers can be contentious, especially when dinner time turns into a free-for-all debate with your crazy uncle from away. What was once civil conversations can rapidly escalate into heated debates unless you avoid “explosive topics” like current political, social, and religious issues. But our democracy was founded on our ability to have productive debates over pertinent issues.

    So, how can you avoid idling safely in a ho-hum conversation filled with pleasantries and open up honest discussions on matters that are important to you with those who disagree? More importantly, how can you feel heard?

    Try these ten tips for your next gathering:

    1. Prepare Ahead of Time

    You may be thinking, “how can I prepare ahead of time if I don’t know when I will have these heated exchanges?” Well, this really means knowing why you believe what you do. If you have a belief that you hold strongly, make sure you have a logical basis for that belief based on data, facts, and sound reasoning. Discover what core principles you have that are unshakable and allow them to inform your views on more specific topics. Finally, research counterarguments to your beliefs and see if you can rationally negate those arguments while standing confident in your own position. 

    Do not regurgitate sound bites, studies, headlines, lectures, or other people, without making sure you have researched your point. Do you understand the methodology of the study you’re citing? Did you fact-check the zinger your friend told you? What is the context of the sound bite you want to quote? Did you even read the full article or just the headline? Doing your homework will make you a more convincing and rational interlocutor. People of all stripes respect people who have strong knowledge behind their beliefs and have a firm grounding in their principles.

    2. Make Your Conversation Partner Feel Heard

    Making your conversation partner feel heard is important to change their mind. Still, it is often easier said than done—especially if they’re frothing at the mouth and furiously ranting at the dinner table. So remember to speak at a normal volume, avoid terms like “debate” or “argument,” and remember that body language is a powerful tool in making your conversation partner feel safe. Sit comfortably, breathe normally, uncross your arms, and do not roll your eyes or make antagonizing gestures. If you look comfortable and genuinely interested in what the other person is saying, no matter how much you may disagree, the tension of the discussion will be lowered. Don’t forget to maintain eye contact!

    3. Set Aside Your Passion 

    Being passionate about something does not make you a good advocate for it. If your passion and emotions cloud your judgment, communication, and ability to stay calm, then it may be time to start practicing how to channel your passion in a way that makes you a more effective communicator and advocate. By learning to set aside your passion, you will become a more calm and collected conversationalist that prompts better responses from people.

    4. Establish Common Ground

    Unfortunately, in this day and age, we seem to all inhabit different realities. Therefore, before beginning any conversation on a hot-button political, social, or religious issue, it is crucial to establish common ground. Find facts, realities, and values that you and your partner share and can be used to establish a firm basis to move forward. Establishing common ground is also essential to building a rapport with your partner and showing that you’re not their enemy. Proving you’re not their enemy by framing a dialogue that seeks to build consensus rather than proving them wrong is crucial to changing their mind – or at least beginning the process of changing their mind.

    5. Admit When They Make a Good Point

    Admitting when your conversation partner makes a good point can be challenging. However, inevitably, in any conversation around a religious, political, or social issue, it is likely  the other person will make a good point (okay, at least a decent point). When it happens, it is crucial to concede. Doing this shows you are a good-faith communicator who seeks to live out your values rather than win an argument. If the point is so good that it makes you reconsider your entire position, write it down, do some research later, and adjust your views or arguments if necessary. If they make a minor point, acknowledge it and return to your larger argument. Refusing to concede any decent point the other side makes will not convince anyone that you are genuinely seeking out what’s best for everyone. You will instead risk coming off as petty and arrogant.

    6. Talk At Their Level

    Nobody likes to be talked down to, and nobody is an expert on everything. In fact, this may surprise you, but people often have very strong opinions on subjects they know little about. 

    If you find yourself in a situation where you are knowledgeable on a topic, but you’re communicating with someone who is not, refrain from using jargon, esoteric language, and academic phraseology. Doing this makes your ideas and arguments more understandable and approachable, rendering you a more effective advocate for your beliefs.

    7. Ask Questions

    It seems simple, but it is surprising how often people don’t ask any questions. If you are unclear on what someone is saying or trying to advocate for–ask clarifying questions. You cannot change their mind if you do not know what their mind thinks. Questions can also work to cut to the heart of someone’s belief system. Once you understand someone’s core principles, it provides the necessary bedrock to change their mind. This way, you will appeal to their core beliefs rather than merely attacking an argument they’re making derived from those beliefs. Finally, you can use questions to get your conversation partner to prove themselves wrong by making them reflect on their own statements that don’t make sense or contradict other points they’ve made.

    8. Let the Other Person Speak…Even If They Talk…A Lot

    One of the most effective ways to demonstrate conversing in good faith and listening to your partner is to let them speak, even if they talk–a lot. Like many of these tips, this one takes practice. It requires a conscious effort not to interrupt someone and to sit through something you may disagree with strongly. However, if someone is talking a lot, one thing you can do is take notes of their arguments using your phone or a pen and paper. Your opponent may rant for a while and bring up numerous points, which may be hard to recall once they’re done. By taking notes while they’re talking, you can quickly go down the list and address their individual arguments one at a time. The good news, though, is that if you feel like someone is talking too much and dominating the conversation, everyone in the room is likely noticing that too.

    9. Don’t Be Afraid To Disengage

    A civil conversation is productive when it ends in consensus. When discussing a topic you and your conversation partner are passionate about, it can be easy to talk in circles. This doesn’t move the conversation in any direction and definitely not toward a consensus. In these situations, it may be necessary to take a step back and return to the discussion later. Disengaging doesn’t mean you are running away or giving up, but rather it gives both you and the other person time to calm down, gather your thoughts, and give sincere consideration to what the other person has said so far. During this reflection, you can notice possible commonalities between both sides and do more research to prove your side and/or evolve your argument. This will allow you to return refreshed and ready to move the conversation forward productively.

    10. Understand It May Take More Than One Conversation 

    Nobody is going to change their mind overnight, but perhaps at least you can help them respect your point of view. It often takes slow, incremental steps to make any noticeable change in a person’s beliefs. Often people have held the same beliefs for years, if not their entire life. So one conversation is not going to erase a lifetime of opinions. While it might be hard to accept this, you will only truly be able to change a person’s mind once you realize it will likely take numerous civil conversations and a whole lot of work.

    This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org

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    Art as Activism: Indigenous Artists’ Responses to Nuclear Exposure

    May 26 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

    Art As Activism

    This presentation focuses on international Indigenous artists’ responses to the impacts of nuclear testing, accidents, and uranium mining on their communities and the environment. Manuela Well-Off-Man, chief curator at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, will present.

    Indigenous artists from Australia, Canada, Greenland, Japan, French Polynesia (Tahiti), and the United States with American Samoa and Guam combine tribal knowledge with Indigenous and contemporary art as a visual strategy to address the long-term effects of nuclear exposure.

    There are over five hundred abandoned uranium mines and mills on Navajo Nation and Pueblo lands in New Mexico alone, and most of them are unmarked. Native American miners worked in the uranium mines without any protective equipment and have been living in houses constructed from contaminated material, exposed to toxic winds and polluted water. Many of them have died because of uranium-related illness. Exposure to uranium and nuclear poisoning is a serious issue for Indigenous communities worldwide.

    The talk takes a closer look at the creative responses of these international Indigenous artists to this deadly legacy.

    Register for the Zoom Event

    About Manuela Well-Off-Man

    Manuela Well-Off-Man is an art historian and chief curator at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

    She previously served as curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. With more than 20 years of curatorial experience in museums and galleries, she has curated national and international contemporary Native American art exhibitions.

    Well-Off-Man received her Ph.D. in art history from the Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany, and her M.A. degree in art history, archaeology and pedagogy from the University of Cologne, Germany. She has authored numerous exhibition catalogue essays, magazine articles and blogs on American art.


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    Brewing a Boycott Book Talk with Dr. Allyson Brantley

    May 12 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

    Free Free

    Allyson P. Brantley will discuss her book, Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism (published with the University of North Carolina Press in 2021).

    Brewing a Boycott tells the story of one of the longest-running consumer boycotts in U.S. history, the boycott of Coors beer. From the 1950s to the 1990s, union members, progressive students, Black and Latinx activists, Native Americans, feminists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community built powerful coalitions to challenge the alleged anti-unionism, discrimination, and conservative politics of Coors Brewing Company and the Coors family.

    Brantley will discuss this exciting history and explore the significance of the consumer boycott as a solidarity-building tool and an expression of First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, and petition.

    Register for the Zoom Event

    About Allyson P. Brantley

    Allyson P. Brantley (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.

    She studies, teaches, and writes about social movements, labor, and Latinx history in the late 20th century United States. S

    he received her Ph.D. in History from Yale University in 2016 and she is a 2020-2021 Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.  

    Free Free

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    Hong Kong: Freedom Under Attack

    April 28 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm


    Currently on display at the First Amendment Museum is a copy of the last edition of the famous Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily. 

    Founded by Hong Kong freedom of speech and freedom of the press advocate Jimmy Lai in 1995, Apply Daily was shuttered by the Chinese Communist Party in 2021. Its demise symbolized the death of the free press in Hong Kong and is just one of many assaults on the universal freedoms of Hong Kong citizens by the Chinese Communist Party. 

    Join the First Amendment Museum as it hosts Hong Kong experts Chi-Sang Poon, Michael C. Davis, and Mark Simon for a panel discussion on the situation in Hong Kong and why it matters to free people around the world.

    Register for the Zoom event

    About panelist Mark Simon

    Mark Simon, a Virginia native, has been involved in media since his days as Media Board Chairman in University. After a brief stint as an intelligence analyst with the US Navy, Mark came to Hong Kong in 1992 and started a career in shipping, and also began to write once again. Over the years Mark has written for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Post, and was often a guest on radio and television from Hong Kong.

    Mark joined Jimmy Lai in May 2001 at Apple Daily. He has held positions with the Next Digital Group, Apple Daily’s parent, from General Manager, and Chief of Crime News, to Group Director.

    Mark sees himself primarily as a businessman as over the years he has also taken on roles in private equity and real estate. Yet, even up until when he had to leave Hong Kong in the spring of 2020, Mark was still writing his column, “Second Opinion”, a column that by Comscore was Hong Kong’s most-read English language column inside Hong Kong’s largest news media platform, Apple Daily.

    About panelist Michael C. Davis

    Professor Michael C. Davis is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, a Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia University, and a Professor of Law and International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University in India.

    Long a public intellectual in Hong Kong, he was a professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong until late 2016. His scholarship engages a range of issues relating to human rights, the rule of law, and constitutionalism in emerging states, with frequent publication in such public affairs journals as Foreign Affairs and the Journal of Democracy, as well as academic journals. Amnesty International and the Hong Kong FCC awarded him a 2014 Human Rights Press Award for his commentary in the South China Morning Post on the 2014 Hong Kong “umbrella movement.”

    His latest book on Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law (November 2020) is available on Amazon and from Columbia University Press.

    About panelist Chi-Sang Poon

    Chi-Sang Poon (潘志生) is a retired scientist from MIT where he served as a health sciences and technology visiting associate professor and then principal research scientist for thirty years.

    A native of Hong Kong, he obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Hong Kong, a master’s degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a Ph.D. degree from UCLA. While at MIT, he was vocal on racial discrimination and civil rights issues and was the creator of a musical CD in memory of 9/11.

    He is the author of a series of articles on defending freedom of the press and of speech under Hong Kong’s looming sedition law, which has been recently decreed as part of Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

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    FREE SPEECH: A History from Socrates to Social Media

    March 2 @ 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.

    Register for the Zoom event

    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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    Regulating “sticks and stones” … and free speech on social media

    Guest blog post by Gene Policinski

    Remember the old children’s adage: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” 

    A retort to hurtful insults and harsh words that the young can sometimes hurl, the saying has picked up new impact – and irony in free speech terms – in the age of pervasive social media.

    Retooled for these times, it could read “Sticks and stones do hurt my bones, and tweets encourage some to hurt me.”

    Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked across the United States, totaling nearly 3,800 hate-related incidents across all 50 states, according to a report Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate (Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate).

    Demonstrators take part in a rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on 13 March. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

    Demonstrators rally against anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on March 13. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

    Critics say crass remarks describing the COVID-19 pandemic as “Kung Flu” or the “China virus” and unproven claims about the origin of the pandemic have fueled those increased attacks.  Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has called on congressional colleagues “who have used that kind of hateful rhetoric — cut it out because you also have blood on your hands.” 

    White supremacist propaganda reached new levels across the U.S. in 2020, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. It said 5,125 cases of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ and other hateful messages were spread through physical flyers, stickers, banners and posters — nearly double those noted in the 2019 report. The ADL said online instances probably totaled millions.

    White Supremacist Propoganda incidents in the US 2017-2020

    Increase in white supremacist propaganda incidents on and off-campus in the U.S. Source: ADL

    Mass shooting in Atlanta

    Mass shooting at spas in the Atlanta area. Source: WSJ

    Tuesday’s mass shootings at several Atlanta-area spas in which eight people, at least four of Korean ancestry, were killed may or may not be classified as a hate crime. Police said the suspected gunman told them he has a “sex addiction.”

    Regardless, the incident already has raised renewed calls for government intervention to censor posts on social media sites that might be classified as “hate speech” – from clearly racist language to images and words that prolong decades-old demeaning stereotypes. The sites currently are protected by their own free speech rights and an added layer of legal security that prevents them from being held liable for content posted on their operations.

    There’s no denying the value to society of stifling hate and ridding us of racial and ethnic profiling rooted in shameful history. But the government has proven to be very clumsy and very slow as a censor.  

    “Community standards” on obscenity have been difficult to define let alone fairly impose. The so-called “Fairness Doctrine” applying to broadcast TV and radio eventually failed because it produced the unintended consequence of chilling the open exchange of conflicting ideas.  When TV or radio personalities have uttered racially insensitive remarks, the “court of public opinion” reacted within days while a court of law properly took months or years to work through due process. 

    And, as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2011 decision involving a group that protested at military funerals, “as a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Roberts also noted such a commitment is to be upheld even recognizing “speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain.”

    Still, the speed, reach and very nature of social media seems to present a new challenge to the old idea that “the antidote to speech you don’t like is more speech” in opposition.  Does hateful speech on social media create, in effect, a virtual community in which such language and imagery is not just acceptable, but with the impact of repeated echoing, has such resonance that some will be driven to action? 

    The quickest solution is for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and such to act themselves to stifle dangerous posts.  But do we want secret algorithms and private panels as the sole determiners of what is dangerous, and the proper remedy of what it or they deem improper speech.

    social media and free speech

    Conservative commentators decry “Cancel Culture” and attack social media outlets for what they say is unfair treatment limiting conservative voices – even when such restrictions are applied to such things as clear misinformation about the effects of COVID-19 vaccinations. Liberal voices want bans on right-wing posts as racist and advancing white supremacist ideas, failing to recognize what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson noted in the late 1940s: We sometimes need to hear ideas we find repugnant if only to be better armed to refute them.

    There are other good reasons to wish the 24/7 omnipresence of social media could be restrained:  So-called “revenge porn,” instances in which family members must endure over and over reposted public images or videos of loved ones insulted, assaulted, or killed.  And then there are the kinds of societal dangers noted in a just-declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which found evidence that Russia and Iran both attempted through online tactics to influence public opinion during the 2020 presidential election.

    Antitrust by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4free

    What to do?  Some solutions are relatively benign and hold great promise. Fostering competition in the social media sphere – either by funding startups or use of anti-trust laws – will reduce the power and impact of a few dominant Big Tech firms. Some social media companies already have taken steps to eliminate the financial rewards for posting blatant misinformation designed to produce as many “clicks” as possible. 

    Public pressure, even if it’s after-the-fact, also produced results more quickly than would moves by government regulators – and can serve as an instant barometer of public opinion.  Racially-rooted jokes largely are absent in open society today not because a law was passed, but because the jokester finds quick disapproval – and for some, commercial, social or political consequences. 

    We have found ways in laws openly arrived at and tested openly in the courts to prevent – or at least punish – speech deemed harmful. We can file lawsuits over defamatory remarks and the authorities can prosecute conduct spurred by “fighting words” that are outside First Amendment protection.  

    There are ways to draw the fine First Amendment lines between repugnant ideas and illegal conduct: The Supreme Court has ruled that cross-burning can serve as an emblem of racist views and thus be protected speech but becomes criminal conduct when the intent is to intimidate a person or group.


    Hard to make such decisions, create such laws or draw such lines? Yes. Likely to be stop-start, one-step-forward-at-a-time path to a workable system? Again yes. Likely to fall short at times and be frustratingly slow even in success? Almost assuredly. And in the end will we need to simply take personal responsibility to question what we read, hear and see?  Absolutely.

    It will take that kind of creative approach, deep engagement, constant vigilance and frequent revision and revisiting if we wish to stop short of some kind of proposed instant cure like a national speech czar – an impossible job, but with the real power of the government to rule for a time over what we say or post.

    Gene Policinski is a trustee of the First Amendment Museum and a First Amendment scholar. He can be reached at genepolicinski@gmail.com.

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