Speaking Freely Through the Ages

The History of Free Speech from Socrates to Social MediaBasic Books 528 Pages, $22

Numerous languages include speech codes built in. These speech codes can be classified as formality or informality in the address, words not intended to be used within certain contexts and speech that is specific for men and women. While European languages don’t have the same levels of distinction as other languages, they maintain informal and formal registers. English, on the other hand, has effectively abandoned these registers. You was once the formal/plural form of address (You can find the e being the familiar).

When we refer to freedom of speech we often mean state-backed legal restrictions. They are also dated back many thousands of years. Ancient edicts provided strict guidelines about who and what was permitted to speak to whom. Sumerian Code of Ur Nammu stated around 2500 B.C. that “if an slave woman curses another person acting with authority of her mistress they will scour her mouth using one sila [0.85 liter]”Salt.” She was probably not permitted to comment on slavery.

With The History of Free Speech from Socrates to Social Media, Jacob Mchangama races through those thousands of years of intellectual and political history to show how distinctive—and how essential—the concept of free speech is. Mchangama is a Danish lawyer who has played a significant role in defending liberty in Europe over the past decade. He was particularly influential in the case of Islamic Blasphemy Claims in Europe. Anyone who is interested in free speech can find great guidance from his book.

Much of European history saw speech policed as either heretical and treasonous. (Or both. There was a lot of overlap because of the divine right of kings. Mchangama’s research shows that universities in the early days were places of information exchange, as well as crackdowns against those thought to have spread dangerous views.

This was because these were exclusive debates. Most people did not have an opportunity to study the controversial texts scholar-monks argued over. The advent of the printing press changed all that. However, it didn’t make everyone a Thomas Aquinas fan. Mchangama points to the fact that same printing presses which disseminated philosophy tracts also “churned forth a steady stream virulent religious and political propaganda, hate speech and treatises about witchcraft and alchemy.”

This is what we see with each new communication method. Just five minutes after the invention, nudie photos were being taken. However, the printing press gave rise to new ideas and allowed people to think in ways that were not possible with smutty woodcuts. Martin Luther wasn’t the only one to criticize the church. But he was the first person to be on the other side of Gutenberg. Thus, his ideas reached more people even if they weren’t followers.

Luther was able to understand his audience. Mchangama says that “the layout and design” of Luther’s writings improved. “In addition to the punchy text, Mchangama added illustrations for the benefit the illiterate. They were eager to share his anti-Catholic jokes.

Luther’s slaps on the pope were not appreciated by all. Like today, the legislation had to keep pace with all of the new ideas that challenged the established order. It wasn’t just books that were affected by the print revolution, it was newspapers as well. These papers spread ideas, encouraged commerce and connected communities. Trade and technology made paper and ink more affordable, as well as the postal system. You could soon insult someone hundreds of miles away.

It was possible to be thoughtful and influential in the political discussions that populated pamphlets, newspapers and other publications during the Enlightenment. However, many of the debates weren’t. Mchangama describes how Pamphlet warfares “quickly descended to an eighteenth Century version of flame, trolling and name-calling. Motivated reasoning is also used. The butcherings of straw men are all part of the process.”

In the context of this text culture, the French Revolution sent shockwaves across Europe, as panicked monarchs suddenly wanted to crack down on republican ideas spreading among their subjects—the kind of reactive legislation that marks the history of free speech. Europe slowly adopted a more relaxed attitude towards speech in the 19th century. However, there were some stumbles. The Catholic countries would retain some more conservative clerical viewpoints. America was the only country in Europe to embrace free speech.

As high-minded liberalism clashed with political reality, there were limits. The Founders tried to control the speech they wanted, often libel or slander. They used the British tradition of a highly developed civil-suit culture as a means of dealing with this. Shortly after the federal experiment ended, the Sedition Act of 201798 was introduced. It allowed for more severe measures. This allowed people to be deported or imprisoned for “false or scandalous writings” that were directed at the United States government. Three years after its expiration, the act still influenced debate regarding what speech was allowed.

The conflict over slavery was another major obstacle. Southern states attempted to punish and ban abolitionist literature. They also passed laws labelling it incendiary. “Ironically,” Mchangama notes, “this included the idea of group libel—a progenitor of modern ‘hate speech’ laws, which protected specific groups from defamatory statements. Senator Calhoun claimed that the abolitionist petitions contained’reflections injurious the feelings’ Southerners, who were being ‘deeply. basely. and maliciously disparaged’. Poor slaveholders would find it hurtful to learn that others think they are bad.

America continued to be inconsistent in its approach to free speech, despite the First Amendment’s promises. The Sedition Act, 1918, imposed a ban on speech that could be defame the government or military or flag or any other disloyal speech. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACU) was founded in 1920 as a response. Regulations were not limited to political speech. Comstock Act 1873 prohibited “obscene” publications. This was not just pornography, but also pamphlets for family planning. The birth control laws were not enacted until after. Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965.

The 20th century’s totalitarian regimes presented new problems on a global scale. Naturally, despots aren’t big supporters of open discourse. How should democracies react to despots, however? Germany and other countries have laws that prohibit the sharing of Nazi propaganda. This restricts freedom in the name preserving liberty. Is it really the best approach to address it?

Mchangama outlines the post-war disputes over the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Its clause declaring freedom of expression. These people, whose religious convictions require punishment for blasphemers of their religion, were always going to be hurt. This is especially true as globalized mass communication transmitted unwelcome ideas to different regions. This tension was exposed in the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. As governments attempt to reconcile their declared commitments to freedom of speech and laws that prevent hateful expressions, the challenge continues.

Even worse, there are other forms of blasphemy in the secular world. As our politicians and tech gods talk about cracking down on “disinformation,” I get the sneaking suspicion that they don’t just mean Sandy Hook truthers—they mean political ideas they don’t like, the stuff they called “sedition” in 1798. When the government allows speech to be silenced, the scope of justification increases.