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“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made.” —P.J. O’Rourke
Hailed as the “first freedom,” free speech is the bedrock of democracy. But it is a challenging principle, subject to erosion in times of upheaval. Today, in democracies and authoritarian states around the world, it is on the retreat.
In Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama traces the riveting legal, political, and cultural history of this idea. Through captivating 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 reveals 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, too, is a constant, and he explores how even its champions can be led down this path when the rise of new and contrarian voices challenge power and privilege of all stripes.
Meticulously researched and deeply humane, Free Speech demonstrates how much we have gained from this principle—and how much we stand to lose without it.
About the Author
Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia and the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. His writing on free speech has appeared in the Economist, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“[An] expansive, atypical history… When free speech advances, as [Mchangama] shows, rulers and other elites often grow alarmed and conclude that it has gone “too far.” Long before governments and thinkers panicked about the spread of noxious ideas via social media, they panicked over the spread of noxious ideas via the printing press…Free Speech is addressed especially to the well-meaning among would-be censors. They should know how rarely censorship goes as planned.”—Wall Street Journal
“Mchangama’s conclusions, presented in a crisp and confident march through Western history, are sobering.”—Economist
"Smart, insightful, and astute… Mchangama provides a sweeping and lively account, rich in historical detail from societies around the world, exploring how the forces of authority and control — religious, political, ideological, economic, social, and cultural — relentlessly seek to impose restrictions on what people can think, write, and say, while the human instincts to freely express ourselves, to learn, and to spread new ideas, valiantly and persistently resist."—Los Angeles Review of Books
“[A] tour-de-force… Free Speech covers a lot of ground, offering an account of the history that is at once panoramic and intricately detailed… Most notably, though, Mchangama’s work is profoundly relevant for our current historical moment… What we have is precious—and must be protected and preserved. Gaining a sense of perspective, especially a global one, is precisely what makes Mchangama’s book so essential.”—Washington Monthly
“Engrossing and comprehensive.”—Washington Examiner
"A book that’s this thorough, detailed and balanced is especially valuable now, given our country’s current fit of polarization."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A work with no real counterpart, at once vividly told, masterfully researched, and exceptionally executed page after page as the history of free speech breaches the barriers of time to come alive with verve and profundity. Given its breadth and depth, Mchangama’s work may well prove to be one of the most important books on free speech published in our lifetimes — an extraordinary achievement!”—First Amendment News
“[Free Speech makes] a persuasive argument that free discourse is essential to democracy, breaking down systems of oppression, and challenging existing social hierarchies… 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.”—Publishers Weekly
“A well-structured and compelling examination of the costs and benefits of free speech.”—Kirkus, Starred Review
“A provocative exploration of a transformative political right.”—Booklist, Starred Review
“Mchangama has written an insightful, nicely woven history that provides a coherent picture of how free speech has developed globally... With accessible and engaging writing, Mchangama’s book is a highly recommended intellectual history."—Library Journal, Starred Review
“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made. Jacob Mchangama never loses sight of the trouble freedom causes but always keeps in mind that lack of freedom creates horrors.”—P.J. O’Rourke
“Freedom of speech has emerged as a major issue of this decade, but most of the discussion consists of outrages over speech or the repression of speech. Missing is the intellectual background: What does free speech really mean? What is its history? How has it played out in world events? Why should we defend it? Jacob Mchangama lays out this context with deep erudition, strong writing, and a light touch.”—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of Enlightenment Now and Rationality
“A lot of people now claim that free speech is a danger to democracy or social inclusion. In this vital book, which is as entertaining as it is erudite, Jacob Mchangama shows why that is dead wrong. Drawing on both historical analysis and normative argument, he makes a compelling case for why anyone who cares about liberty or justice must defend free speech.”—Yascha Mounk, author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University
“Jacob Mchangama’s history of the world's strangest, best idea is the definitive account we have been waiting for. It teems with valuable insights, lively characters, and the author's passion for the cause he has done so much to advance. Mchangama brings to life the ancient struggles which established free speech and also the modern dangers which embattle it. Free Speech is that rare book which will impress scholars as much as it entertains readers, all while telling the world's most improbable success story.”—Jonathan Rauch, author of The Constitution of Knowledge
“Jacob Mchangama's panoramic exploration of the history of free speech offers a vivid, highly readable account of how today's most pitched battles over free speech reflect tensions and impulses that are as old as history itself. Mchangama persuasively dismantles the persistent claims, common to every era and technological evolution, that unprecedented new threats warrant expanded constraints on speech. This indispensable book is a must for both defenders of free speech and, even more so, for those entertaining the notion that free speech should or must be traded away in order to advance other public goods.”—Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (2020)
“In Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama presents a compelling case for the unique, universal, enduring importance of free and equal speech for all people, regardless of their particular identities or ideologies. This fascinating account, of magisterial scope, demonstrates the constant liberating and equalizing force of free speech, throughout history and around the world. It also documents the constant censorial pressures, including many that reflect positive aims, and their inevitable suppression of full and equal human rights.”—Nadine Strossen, Former National President, American Civil Liberties Union