The History of Free Speech from Socrates to Social Media

With Jacob Mchangama

Hailed as the “first freedom,” free speech is one of the bedrocks of democracy. But it is a challenging principle, subject to erosion in times of fear and upheaval. Today, both in democracies and in authoritarian states around the world, it appears to be on the retreat.

Jacob Mchangama traces the fascinating legal, political and cultural history of this idea by telling stories of free speech’s many defenders—from the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes and the ninth-century freethinker al-Rāzī, to the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and modern-day digital activists. Mchangama describes how the free exchange of ideas underlies all intellectual achievement and has enabled the advancement of both freedom and equality worldwide. Yet the desire to restrict speech is also a constant, and he explores how even its champions can sometimes be led down an authoritarian, restrictive path when the rise of new and contrarian voices challenge power and privilege of all stripes.

Mchangama’s Free Speech demonstrates how much we have gained from this principle—and how much we stand to lose without it.