cover image Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

Jacob McHangama. Basic, $30 (528p) ISBN 978-1-5416-0049-2

McHangama, founder of the Danish think thank Justitia, documents centuries-long tensions over “equal and uninhibited discourse” in this impassioned defense of free speech. Making a persuasive argument that free discourse is essential to democracy, breaking down systems of oppression, and challenging existing social hierarchies, McHangama profiles advocates, including 19th-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, who warned against the “stifling effects of social norms” on freedom of speech; founding father James Madison, whose draft of the First Amendment described freedom of the press as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty”; and the ninth-century Persian physician al-Rāzī, who “was highly critical of the restrictions religious fanaticism placed on free thought.” McHangama also incisively analyzes “the process of entropy” that leads political leaders—“no matter how enlightened”—to “inevitably convince themselves that now free speech has gone too far,” and debunks arguments in favor of censorship, including claims that the lack of prohibitions against totalitarian propaganda in Weimar Germany facilitated the rise of the Nazis. Readers on both the right and the left seeking insights into modern-day debates over free speech will welcome this evenhanded and wide-ranging history. (Feb.)