Does America have a free speech problem? Yes, according to the New York Times’ editorial board; no, according to furious critics in the media and on Twitter. The history of free speech suggests that the Times has a point and that its critics view this freedom through a too-narrow lens. 

In addition to ideological partisanship, the disagreement about the state of free speech reveals that many Americans have a reductionist and parochial understanding of this freedom, which they view as being identical to the First Amendment. Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment offers only protection against government restrictions of free speech. This was, indeed, a hugely important development, and the First Amendment has, with time, served as a crucial bulwark of American liberty, democracy, and — much belatedly — equality. 

The Ancient Roots of Free Speech

But the history of free speech shows that the origins of this freedom stretch much further back than the First Amendment or even the Enlightenment. Moreover, the history of free speech demonstrates vividly that the ecosystem needed for this value to thrive and flourish in practice is far more complex than merely being a question of protecting the citizen against the state. In truth, the roots of free speech are ancient, deep, and sprawling. The Athenian statesman Pericles extolled the democratic values of open debate and tolerance of social dissent in 431 BCE. In the ninth century CE, the irreverent freethinker Ibn al-Rawandī used the fertile intellectual climate of the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate to question prophecy and holy books. In 1582 the Dutchman Dirck Coornhert insisted that it was “tyrannical to …. forbid good books in order to squelch the truth.” The first legal protection of press freedom was instituted in Sweden in 1766, and Denmark became the first state in the world to abolish any and all censorship in 1770.                                                                                                                                        

Yet, almost invariably, the introduction of free speech sets in motion a process of entropy. The leaders of any political system — no matter how enlightened — inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far. Autocratic oligarchs disdainful of sharing power with the masses twice overthrew the ancient Athenian democracy, purging proponents of democracy and dissent along the way. Hardening laws against apostasy and blasphemy curtailed the most daring freethinking in medieval Islam. In the Dutch Republic of the 16th century, Coornhert was exiled and his writings banned on several occasions. Both Sweden’s and Denmark’s experiments with press freedom were short-lived as absolutist rulers took back control of the printing presses. 

The Free Speech Recession

This phenomenon of free speech entropy is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago, and when looking closer, the justifications for limiting free speech in the 21st century have more in common with those used many centuries past than perhaps we’d like to admit.

The global club of free democracies is shrinking fast. As in ancient Athens, aspirational autocrats — from Orbán in Hungary to Modi in India — view freedom of speech as the first and most important obstacle to be cleared on the path to entrenching their power. In parts of the Islamic world, blasphemy and apostasy are still punishable by death, whether enforced by the state or by jihadist vigilantes. The global free speech recession even extends to liberal democracies, whose governments are fearful of the consequences of disinformation and hostile propaganda spreading uncontrollably among the masses through new technology, and where academic and cultural institutions are internalizing the idea that the values of free speech and equal dignity are sometimes mutually exclusive rather than mutually reinforcing. 

Free speech entropy is not merely political but deeply rooted in human psychology. The drive to please others, the fear of out-groups, the desire to avoid conflict, and everyday norms of kindness pull us in the direction of wanting to silence uncomfortable speakers, whether on digital platforms, on college campuses, or in cultural institutions. Like a massive body in outer space pulling in all the matter close to it, we are all drawn back toward censorship. It is therefore all the more vital to actively foster and maintain a culture of free speech to ensure that this freedom continues. Legislation is not enough on its own. This is especially true in democracies. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville: “Censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed,” but at the same time he found that in America the “Tyranny” of the majority subjected any writer who defied majority opinion to “obloquy and persecution.”

The Culture of Free Speech 

Even if societal threats to free speech can be as stifling as government-imposed censorship, determining whether private action undermines or is an exercise of the culture of free speech can be difficult. After all, free speech does not grant anyone the right to have an op-ed published in the New York Times or a huge following on social media. Still there is a fundamental difference between reacting to ideas one loathes with scorn or criticism and demanding that specific viewpoints be purged and their authors and enablers punished with loss of livelihood or disciplinary sanctions. However committed they are to liberal and progressive values, influential educational and cultural institutions do not become more diverse, tolerant, and equal by banishing ideas, publications, and speakers that do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. It is particularly problematic when media institutions, social media platforms, and universities — none of whom can effectively function without free speech — come to internalize the idea that provocative opinions are “dangerous,” “unsafe,” or even “harmful” to their own staff, students, readers, and users.

Free Speech and/or Equality?

The school of thought that drives restrictive laws and speech codes in European democracies and canceling attempts in America insists that a commitment to the equal dignity of all requires banning hate speech in order to protect minorities and vulnerable groups from discrimination and oppression. The digital age has shown that concerns about hate speech fanned by social media should not be taken lightly, and that words that wound can contribute to both psychological and physical harms. The impact of such hate speech tends to impose a disproportionately heavy toll on targeted minorities. However, it does not follow that censorship is an appropriate or efficient remedy in societies committed to both freedom and equality. Protecting the vulnerable from discrimination and oppression while seeking to preserve freedom and equality should and can go hand in hand.

A global look at the history of free speech suggests that free speech is in fact a shield against oppression. White supremacy, whether in the shape of American slavery and segregation, British colonialism, or South African apartheid, relied heavily on censorship and repression. Conversely, advocates of human equality like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela all championed the principle and practice of free speech to great effect and at huge personal cost. In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.” Tragically, several countries, not least India, still use hate speech laws, with roots stretching back to the era of British colonialism, to silence dissenters as well as the minorities these laws were supposed to protect. Moreover, the current tsunami of Republican-sponsored bills aimed at censoring “divisive” teachings on issues such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and even American history, are often uncomfortably close to their anti-racist speech code counterparts when it comes to wording and the underlying philosophy that words constitute, or are comparable with, tangible physical harms. Far from serving as a remedy against “cancel culture,” such bills are likely to increase partisan and ideological policing of nonconformist speech to the detriment of free and open discourse without which higher education becomes stale and ultimately meaningless.  

Eternal vigilance against both encroaching state power as well as the opaque, automated, and centralized privatized control of speech will be required for free expression to fulfill its promise as a necessary precondition for democracy, freedom, and equality. But most important for the future of free speech is this: Those of us who have benefited from the unprecedented advances in human affairs — brought about by the 2,500 years of this counterintuitive, revolutionary, and deeply consequential idea — must resist the impulse of free speech entropy and contribute to keep alive a vibrant culture of free speech.

Adapted from Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, by Jacob Mchangama. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.