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.

You can read the whole essay here.

One thought on “Have Americans Given Up on Free Speech?

  1. I enjoyed the piece very much. I thin, in general, it is correct. I’m not sure I buy the “both sides do it” argument. It’s very clear that the left is far more engaged in attempting to shut down speech it dislikes. From silencing the NY Post on the Hunter Biden laptop to the ridiculous claim that expression of uncomfortable opinions amounts to “violence”, to the claim that any disagreement with regard to the interpretation of contested facts amounts to “disinformation”, the left is engaged in an all out war on free speech.

    Conservative attempts to deal with CRT (most of which I find constitutionally suspect or silly) are of an entirely different character. This is a debate about what the curriculum of a public school should look like. At the elementary and secondary levels, teachers don’t have the same free speech rights that university faculty or the general public does — and they shouldn`t. Parents, school committees, and legislatures have a perfect right to dictate what is and what is not taught in the curriculum. Thus, debates over whether Shakespeare is taught in Grade 9 or Grade 10 (and which play is to be read) are of the same character as whether the 1619 Project should form part of the Social Studies syllabus.

    This one small comment aside, I think this is a very interesting observation on where we are as a nation today.

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