At Law and Liberty today, I have a review essay on Jacob Mchangama’s new book, Free Speech. Mchangama argues that the United States, and the world generally, needs to recommit to free speech principles before it is too late. I argue that the real problem is not a failure to believe in free speech, but a lack of social trust. Here’s an excerpt:
It is a striking feature of American life in the first quarter of the 21st century that we have somehow created a culture in which everyone feels aggrieved. This is especially true when it comes to free speech. Both conservatives and progressives believe their opponents are out to silence them—not just beat them in debates and prevail against them in elections, but intimidate them, put them on mute permanently, eliminate any possibility of resistance. Many on each side see the other as not simply wrong, but ill-motivated and dangerous, an existential threat to be defeated before it is too late.
This state of affairs is more the norm in American history than we care to admit. Perhaps because we see ourselves in providential terms—“the last best hope of earth,” as Lincoln said—Americans always have been sensitive to threats our democracy faces and often have worried about enemies within spreading “disinformation.” Eras of Good Feeling occur relatively rarely. Even so, the level of recrimination just now seems quite high, and many Americans apparently believe we must silence our opponents before they succeed in silencing us.
In Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, Jacob Mchangama maintains that a renewed commitment to free expression can help us through these perfervid times. Mchangama, a lawyer and the founder of Justitia, a human-rights organization in Denmark, has written a programmatic history that “connect[s] past speech controversies with the most pressing contemporary ones.” Today’s debates about free expression recapitulate those of long ago, he believes, and just as our ancestors did, we must defend the right to speak against those who would take it away.
To write a comprehensive history like this one is an ambitious undertaking, and Free Speech is a mixed success. Mchangama writes engagingly and has done his research. The chapters on the Internet and social media are especially good. But even at 500 pages, a history that spans thousands of years and many civilizations is bound to be a bit superficial at times. Moreover, as he himself recognizes, tolerance for others’ speech depends as much on culture as it does on law—and in today’s polarized, distrustful America, we are less and less likely to give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and let them have their say even if the law permits it.
Here’s an interesting collection of essays, Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of Our Democracy (OUP forthcoming), edited by Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger and University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey R. Stone. It frames debates about free speech today, particularly on social media, as reflecting a “problem” for American democracy–the problem of “bad speech”–in need of urgent reform and new solutions. Contributors include Hillary Clinton, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Mark Warner, together with a host of legal academics who are highly critical of the contemporary, speech-protective American legal regime. It’s a fascinating collection and choice of contributors purely as a matter of academic sociology, reflecting the prevailing skepticism among many experts about American First Amendment protections as well as what is felt to be an outsized cultural commitment to free speech that damages the more fundamental commitments thought by many scholars to be truly constitutive of the American polity. The title of one essay, in particular, was striking in the table of contents: Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s chapter (co-authored with his son, it appears), “The Golden Era of Free Speech.” For many skeptics, a highly speech-protective regime was once very attractive and even necessary to dismantle the then-existing cultural superstructure, but is far less so today. I discussed the matter of free speech as posing a civic problem in this piece a few years ago–“the problem of how to allocate a resource in civically responsible ways, so as to limit freedom’s hurtful potential and to make citizens worthy of the freedoms they are granted. Only a somewhat virtuous society can sustain a regime of political liberty without collapsing, as a society, altogether.” It was a problem that was largely forgotten in the 20th century, but it has now been remembered.
One of the most fiercely debated issues of this era is what to do about “bad” speech-hate speech, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and incitement of violence-on the internet, and in particular speech on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of our Democracy, Lee C. Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone have gathered an eminent cast of contributors–including Hillary Clinton, Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Warner, Newt Minow, Tim Wu, Cass Sunstein, Jack Balkin, Emily Bazelon, and others–to explore the various dimensions of this problem in the American context. They stress how difficult it is to develop remedies given that some of these forms of “bad” speech are ordinarily protected by the First Amendment. Bollinger and Stone argue that it is important to remember that the last time we encountered major new communications technology-television and radio-we established a federal agency to provide oversight and to issue regulations to protect and promote “the public interest.” Featuring a variety of perspectives from some of America’s leading experts on this hotly contested issue, this volume offers new insights for the future of free speech in the social media era.