Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

From a Wall Street Journal review by Jonathan Marks of the book by Jacob Mchangama titled “Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media”:

A typical account of free-speech history will begin with John Milton’s 1644 attack on censorship, “Areopagitica.” To those who feared the publication of false and dangerous doctrines, Milton said, in essence, buck up: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”…

In “Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media,” Jacob Mchangama delivers the bad news about Milton. Indeed, a recurring theme in this expansive, atypical history is “Milton’s Curse,” a disease that afflicts defenders of free speech when they are exposed to power. In his “Philosophical Dictionary” (1764), Voltaire advised: “Does a book displease you? Refute it.” But Voltaire, Mr. Mchangama observes, “tried to game the system of French censorship in order to advance his own writings and suppress those of his foes.” Robespierre, who launched the Terror in 1793, had been, in the early days of the French Revolution, among the “biggest advocates of free speech.”

Mr. Mchangama, who directs a Copenhagen-based human-rights think tank, is not out to cut free-speech warriors down. He is himself such a warrior, out to warn civilians about “free speech entropy,” of which Milton’s Curse is only one aspect. When free speech advances, as he shows, rulers and other elites often grow alarmed and conclude that it has gone “too far.” Long before governments and thinkers panicked about the spread of noxious ideas via social media, they panicked over the spread of noxious ideas via the printing press….

There will always be reasons to want to shut some people up, as Mr. Mchangama shows. The printing press in its early days “churned out a steady stream of virulent political and religious propaganda, hate speech, obscene cartoons, and treatises on witchcraft.” Social media are lighter on witchcraft but no less a godsend to dealers in poison and smut. “Free Speech” is addressed especially to the well-meaning among would-be censors. They should know how rarely censorship goes as planned….

Mr. Mchangama allows us a good laugh at the beleaguered 16th-century censor who, crushed by “the sheer volume of printed material flooding Christendom,” moans: “What we need is a halt to printing.” But we don’t laugh for long, because Mr. Mchangama confronts us with chillingly effective censorship regimes, including the one that, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s estimation, ensured that “there was no public opinion in the Soviet Union.” Of the gulags, he said, “no news could leak out,” and rumors couldn’t get far….

“Today’s governments,” Mr. Mchangama says, mimic that strategy when they target the “choke point of social media platforms rather than the individual users.” That doesn’t all by itself count against them, but it gives one pause, especially at a time when Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are removing record amounts of content, using opaque and shifting guidelines. Compared with these social-media giants, Mr. Mchangama notes, no “government in history has ever been able to exert such extensive control over what is being said, read, and shared . . . in real time.”

Similarly, Mr. Mchangama alerts well-meaning censors who wish to curtail only “hate speech” that illiberal governments have hidden behind that same wish. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, says that “advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” This provision—which can easily be abused to “justify [the] persecution of opinions” that a government doesn’t like, as Mr. Mchangama says—was a win for the longtime Soviet position. In 1989, when Libyan and Iranian delegates condemned Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” at the U.N., they invoked the standard of the 1966 covenant. “The real criminal,” Mr. Mchangama notes, “was Rushdie, not those who sought to kill him.”

Mr. Mchangama acknowledges that there are many honorable proponents of hate-speech legislation. But he demands that such proponents have a reason, in the face of the history of overreach and error that his book unfolds, to trust themselves to wield illiberal tools in the work of freedom. One symptom of Milton’s Curse is precisely such misplaced trust.

Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of “Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.”


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