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Florida Bar Journal

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

By Jacob Mchangama Book Reviews

Image of Free Speech book coverDanish attorney and think tank scholar Jacob Mchangama has produced in Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media a potential antidote to our ignorance about the past social and political ramifications of speech oppression: a convincing historical account that demonstrates in detail the continuous, unstable ebb and flow of the freedom of expression concept, as both an abstract philosophical idea and a tangible legal and political practice, during recorded time from (as the subtitle accurately suggests) ancient Greece to contemporary times. The range of Mchangama’s intellectual investigation is geographically and culturally ambitious; discussion of the American approach is an important part, but only part, of a comprehensive investigation that reviews and reflects on an enormous and lengthy worldwide experience.

The story of free speech as revealed by the author is not one of steady evolutionary progress guided by a predetermined “end of history” arc bending inevitably in the liberal direction. Instead, there has always been a tendency toward “free speech entropy.” Various national entities have sometimes produced bright but limited (in both time and scope) pockets of tolerance, but also long and bloody periods of aggressive persecution by overt or tacit alliances of religious and political rulers, in de facto partnerships of throne and altar, warring against unwelcome individual expressions of nonconformity condemned as, respectively, blasphemy, and seditious libel. From antiquity to modernity, the power struggle to determine who will be the gatekeeper of knowledge, information, and communication has been — and remains — a continual one. From the earliest days, even those whom we now admire as champions of free speech have been selective, indeed hypocritical, in how they defined and thereby limited the scope of free expression and the group of people to whom the right of unfettered speech rights should be extended.

This tome is an impressive feat of scholarship, supported by 45 pages of endnotes citing hundreds of legal and other reputable sources. This is not beach vacation reading. Although the writing is engaging, even clever in places, the author’s fact-thick, thoroughly methodical presentation of a vital but complex facet of human history means that tackling this book is a project requiring a reader’s serious investment of time and energy. For proponents of free speech who are concerned about the peril of repeating today the repressive, repeated mistakes of our predecessors (“Free speech is the premier victim of tyranny,” p. 18), the investment will be well worthwhile.

Marshall Kapp of Tallahassee is a member of The Florida Bar.