a podcast on the history of free speech


Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

Listen to the podcast on iTunes


“We mustn’t allow free speech to fade into a feel-good slogan. It is an unintuitive principle with a rationale that many don’t appreciate and a history that many don’t know. Mchangama’s lucid history of free speech fills that gap and deepens our understanding of this precious concept”.

Steven Pinker Harvard Professor and author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

“Freedom of speech is the most successful social policy ever – and also the most counterintuitive. Jacob Mchangama’s delightful podcast series paints vivid portraits of the lives, ideas, and struggles of the people who brought this improbable principle to life. I haven’t missed an episode, and neither should you.”

Jonathan Rauch Author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better after 50. Senior fellow at Brookings Institution. Contributing editor at The Atlantic

“Free speech in the ancient Athenian democracy, as  Jacob Mchangama so brilliantly and wittily makes clear …was one of the cardinal and fundamental principles of ancient Greek demokratia…..So important are the issues still today that ‘Free speech in Ancient Athens’ is worth an hour of any concerned citizen’s time”

Paul Cartledge A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus, Cambridge University, author of “Democracy: A Life” and “Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice"

“Throughout much of history, free speech advocates have been progressives fighting elite power structures.  Karl Marx rightly opposed and indeed lampooned press censorship.  It is a tragedy of the 20th and 21st centuries that too many progressives have switched sides, weaving poorly reflected theories of language into poorly reflected theories of politics.  Jacob Mchangama leads us through a vividly told history that, sadly, continues to repeat for as long as its lessons remain un-learned”.

Eric Heinze Professor of Law & Humanities, Executive Director, QM (CLDS) Centre for Law, Democracy, and Society • School of Law , Queen Mary, University of London, author of Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship

”After impressive gains, free speech is once again in retreat across the globe. This development should concern all who care about democracy, freedom, and truth. Free speech superstar Jacob Mchangama’s new highly informative and engaging history of free speech is just the answer. The podcast is the perfect medium to rediscover the rich heritage and crucial civilizational gains of free speech and to inoculate against dangerous complacency.“

Dunja Mijatovic Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights elect, and former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

“The podcast provides an engaging and inspiring history of free speech that is accessible to anyone interested in a topic that is fundamental to every human being and society. If you want to understand what’s at stake and know about the battles that our predecessors were engaged in the fight for free speech there can be no better place to start than with Jacob Mchangama’s podcast.”

Flemming Rose Journalist and author of The Tyranny of Silence



Episode 17 - Global Inquisition

In the 16th Century Spain and Portugal globalized the inquisition by spreading the fight for religious orthodoxy and against heresy, blasphemy and apostasy to the Americas, Africa and Asia allowing inquisitors to pry into the souls of men on five continents. In Episode 17 we try to answer questions such as:

  • How many people were affected by the inquisition?
  • What were the consequences for native Americans?
  • What were the similarities and differences between inquisition in Europe and the different colonies?
  • What where the links between inquisition, racism and anti-semitism?
  • How did the inquisition stop the spread of books and information?
  • Why and when did the inquisition end?


Episode 16 - Expert Opinion - Michael Shermer

In this episode, we join up with historian of science Dr. Michael Shermer to investigate the cross-fertilization between science and free speech.

Michael Shermer is a prolific writer on science, philosophy and morality and has appeared in numerous documentaries, talk shows, and TED talks.

Among the topics discussed are:

  • When did scientific freedom make its decisive breakthrough?
  • What comes first: Science or free inquiry?
  • How did both Islam and Christianity affect science?
  • What is the relationship between science and free speech as such?
  • Can science be used to suppress free speech?
  • How did Benjamin Franklin infuse the Declaration of Independence with Newtonian science?


Episode 15 — Paper-bullets and the forgotten martyrs of radical free speech

Episode 15 returns to Europe and formative events in 17th Century England, where a mostly forgotten group of radicals demanded a written constitution guaranteeing free speech, liberty of conscience, and democracy. But who were the Levellers? What was the historical context of their radical demands and why were they ultimately crushed by former allies?

Listen and find the answers to such questions as:

  • Who was the first English author to demand full religious toleration for both heretics and non-Christians?
  • Why did Charles I and Archbishop Laud cut off the ears of dissenting Puritans?
  • What happens when you try to impose alien religious ceremonies on proud and devout Scots?
  • Why was censorship abolished in 1641 and what were the consequences?
  • What happened at the Putney Debates?
  • How radical were the Levellers’ demands for free speech and liberty of conscience?
  • Did John Milton really become a censor himself?
  • Why did traditionalists refer to pamphlets and books as “paper-bullets?”


Episode 14 - ‘Universal Peace’ and religious tolerance in the Mughal empire

Episode 14 leaves the West and heads to 16th and 17th Century India and the Mughal empire. In particular, the rule of Akbar the Great.

A century before John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” Akbar developed a policy of “Universal Peace” repudiating religious compulsion and embracing ecumenical debate. We’ll also discover why the history of the Mughal empire still tests the limits of free speech and tolerance in modern India. Among the questions tackled are:

  • Why, how, and to what extent did Akbar abandon orthodox Islam for religious tolerance?
  • How did religious tolerance in the Mughal empire compare to contemporary Europe?
  • How did English travelers get away with openly blaspheming Muhammad, the Quran, and Allah?
  • Was the emperor Aurangzeb really the uniquely intolerant villain that history has portrayed him as?
  • Why do India’s current laws against religious insults hamper modern historians’ efforts at documenting events during the Mughal empire?


Episode 13 – Expert Opinion – Jonathan Haidt

In this episode, we do a bit of time travel and leave the 17th century for a discussion of free speech on American college and university campuses today.

Our guest is New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, who is a co-author with FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” which is already among Amazon’s top 20 bestselling books.

But in looking at the present challenges to free speech on campus, we do also try to draw parallels with older controversies in order to determine whether the psychological mechanisms at play are similar.

Among the topics discussed are:

  • Is there really a “free speech crisis” among American students?
  • The three “Great Untruths” challenging the idea of free speech
  • The mental health crisis affecting students’ ability to handle adversity and disagreement
  • The role of social media
  • Why students’ efforts to shut down speakers at American universities is related to the millennia-old idea of blasphemy
  • What drives tribalism old and new?
  • Whether we should think of words as a form of violence
  • How do we overcome the temptation to reenact the inquisition?

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and the author of the New York Times Bestseller “The Righteous Mind.” Among a dizzying range of activities, Haidt is also the co-founder of Heterodox Academy, a large and growing group of professors and students who disagree on many things but are united in their mission to increase viewpoint diversity at American universities.


Episode 12 – Expert Opinion – Teresa Bejan

We enter the early modern age with an expert opinion featuring Teresa Bejan, associate professor at Oriel College, Oxford University and author of “Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration.” In this episode, Jacob and Teresa will discuss political thought on tolerance and the limits of religious speech in early modern England and colonial America. The episode investigates the writings of intellectual rock stars John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke and the less famous but hugely relevant Roger Williams.

Among the topics discussed are:

  • Milton’s “Areopagitica”
  • Early colonial religious “hate speech” laws
  • Why Hobbes found “the mere fact of disagreement offensive”
  • The origin, development, and limits of Lockean tolerance
  • Williams’s combination of fundamentalist evangelical intolerance and free speech fundamentalism
  • Why political theory and practice of the 17th century is relevant to modern day controversies on free speech

Bejan is Associate Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Oriel College. She is the author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration.


Episode 11 - The Great Disruption: Part II

In episode 11 we continue to survey the wreckage after hurricane Luther was unleashed on Europe with the Reformation. When the Reformation mutated and spread across the continent a burning question arose: Can people of different faiths live together in the same state? Should social peace be based on tolerance or intolerance? We look into questions such as

  • How did other Protestant reformers like Calvin and Zwingli react to religious dissent?
  • In what manner did English and continental censorship laws differ?
  • How did the Catholic Church react to the Reformation?
  • Which states were the first state to formalize religious tolerance?
  • How did the scientific and philosophical ideas of Galileo and Giordano Bruno conflict with the religious monopoly on truth and what where the repercussions?

And much, much more.


Episode 10 - The Great Disruption: Part I - The Printing Press and the Viral Reformation

The disruptive effects of the internet and social media on the spread of information are unprecedented. Or are they?

In episode 10 Clear and Present Danger, we cover the invention, spread, and effects of the Gutenberg printing press:

  • What significance did this new technology have for the dissemination of knowledge and ideas?
  • Why was the printing press instrumental in helping a German monk and scholar break the religious unity of Europe?
  • What happened when new religious ideas raged through Europe like wildfire?
  • And did Martin Luther’s Reformation lead to religious tolerance and freedom, or persecution and censorship?

And much, much more.


EPISODE 9 – Expert Opinion - Christine Caldwell Ames

Our last stop in the Middle Ages is an interview with professor Christine Caldwell Ames, who is an expert on medieval heresy and inquisition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The discussion highlights the similarities and differences between Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, Judaism, and Islam when it comes to defining and policing orthodoxy.

Among the topics discussed are:

  • Was the Medieval Inquisition motivated by worldly power or religious zeal?
  • What effect did the Medieval Inquisition have on ordinary people and local communities?
  • Why has the Spanish Inquisition become so infamous?
  • Was Islamic Spain a haven of religious tolerance compared to the Latin West?  
  • Are inquisitions a thing of the past or still relevant in the 21st century?

And much, much more.


EPISODE 8 – The hounds of God - medieval heretics and inquisitors

From the High Middle Ages, Europe developed into a “persecuting society,” obsessed with stamping out the “cancer” of heresy. But questions about how this was accomplished — and the consequences of these developments — abound:

  • Why did popes and secular rulers shift from persuasion to persecution of heretics?
  • Why was human choice in matters of religious belief considered a mortal threat to Christendom itself?
  • Why did bookish inquisitors armed with legal procedure, interrogation manuals, data and archives succeed where bloody crusades and mass slaughter failed?
  • How did the “machinery of persecution” developed in the Late Middle Ages affect other minority groups such as Jews?
  • Are inquisitions a thing of a past and dark hyper-religious age, or a timeless instrument with appeal to the “righteous mind” whether secular or religious?
  • What are the similarities between medieval laws against heresy and modern laws against hate speech?

We try to answer these questions — and more — in the latest episode of our Clear and Present Danger podcast.


EPISODE 7 – Expert Opinion – Peter Adamson

In our second expert opinion episode, Jacob Mchangama talks with Peter Adamson, who is a professor of philosophy at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and host of the podcast “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.”

We’ll discuss medieval freethinking and freethinkers from both the Islamic world and the Latin West. Where was the soil most fertile for medieval freethinking? What was the impact of Muslim philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes on European thought? And finally, who makes Peter’s list of the top three boldest European medieval freethinkers?

Professor Peter Adamson has released over 300 podcast episodes on the history of philosophy, written several books, and published numerous papers on medieval and ancient philosophy. He holds a joint appointment with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and King’s College London.


EPISODE 6 – The not-so-Dark Ages, medieval intellectuals, and freethinkers

In episode 6, we get medieval!

Find out why the Middle Ages were as much a period of reason and inquiry as inquisition and superstition.

Why was the famous medieval intellectual Pierre Abelard castrated, forced to burn his works, and condemned to silence by the church? How did the combination of Aristotelian philosophy and the development of universities institutionalize reason and science? What are the parallels between clashes over academic freedom in the 13th and 21st centuries?

All this and much more in Clear and Present Danger - episode 6!


EPISODE 5 – The Caliphate

Why did the medieval Abbasid Caliphs have almost all ancient Greek works of philosophy and science translated into Arabic? How did the long list of medieval Muslim polymaths reconcile abstract reasoning with Islamic doctrine?

Who were the radical freethinkers that rejected revealed religion in favor of reason in a society where apostasy and heresy were punishable by death?

And why are developments in the 11th century crucial to understanding modern controversies over blasphemy and apostasy, such as the Salman Rushdie affair and the attack on Charlie Hebdo?

Find out in episode 5 of Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. The Caliphate


EPISODE 4 – Expert Opinion – Paul Cartledge

In our first expert opinion segment, Jacob Mchangama talks to Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University Paul Cartledge. With his intimate knowledge of ancient Greece, we dive deeper into the concepts of free speech and democracy in Athens that were discussed in episode one.

What are the differences between free speech in the Athenian democracy and free speech in a modern liberal democracy? What limits did religion set for Athenian free speech? Was Plato a totalitarian? And was the trial of Socrates mostly religious or political?

The discussion also explores the differences between Athens and republican Rome, why free speech was alien to Sparta, and the rather condescending attitudes of the American Founding Fathers toward Athenian democracy (shame on you for defaming Pericles, Alexander Hamilton!).

Cartledge has written extensively on ancient Athens. His authorship includes among many titles, the critically acclaimed “Democracy: A Life” and “Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice.”


EPISODE 3 - The Age of Persecution

Why did the polytheist Ancient Romans persecute the followers of the new Jewish sect of “Christians” in the first three centuries AD”? How high was the price that Christians had to pay for casting away their ancient religious traditions for the belief in salvation through Jesus Christ? Did Roman Emperor Constantine end religious intolerance with the Edict of Milan? And why did the Christians persecute the pagans – and each other – once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire? Why were temples and libraries destroyed and the female mathematician Hypatia killed by violent mobs? And did Emperor Justinian really end antiquity when he closed the Academy in Athens? Find out when we discover how religious persecution and violence impacted lives, learning, and liberty of conscience in the period from the trial of Jesus to the age of Justinian. The Age of Persecution. That’s episode 3 of Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.



EPISODE 2 - Liberty or License

Rome was the most powerful empire in antiquity. But were the Romans free to speak truth to power? Did history’s first successful Women’s March takes place in Rome? And who came out on top when the words of Cicero clashed with the ambition of Caesar and armies of Octavian? Why did historians and astrologers become endangered species when the Republic became an empire? Find out in episode 2 of “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech”.


EPISODE 1 - Who wishes to speak?

The democracy of Ancient Athens was the birthplace of equal and uninhibited speech. Or Isegoria and parrhesia to the Athenians. Jacob Mchangama guides you through how oratory was central to the idea and practice of Athenian democracy. What Athenian style free speech entailed for ordinary citizens, comedians, philosophers, and orators. How oligarchic coup d’etats twice drowned Athenian free speech in blood and repression. The extreme methods used by Demosthenes to become the greatest orator of antiquity. And of course: the trial of Socrates: Was he a martyr for free speech or an impious and seditious enemy of democracy?

So the following episode is an attempt to bring to life a pivotal but often forgotten period as we embark on the first stop of what I hope will be a long journey together through the history of free speech.


EPISODE 0 - Why free speech?

Only 13% of the world’s 7,4 billion people enjoy free speech. 45% live in countries where censorship is the norm. Still, more than half the world’s population across cultures and continents think free speech is very important. But why is that? Where does the principle of free speech come from? How has it been developed over time? Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? And what can people in the digital age learn from past conflicts over where to draw the line? 

In this Prologue, Jacob Mchangama explains his motivation and core beliefs on why and how he will take on this endeavor to explore the history of free speech.

Why Free Speech?

From 1989 and until the early noughties free speech went viral across the globe as new democracies tore down the walls of censorship. But for more than a decade the global respect for free speech has been in decline. In 2003 41% of the world’s countries had a free press. In 2017 that figure had dropped to 31%.  Or put differently: Only 13% of the world’s 7,4 billion people enjoy free speech. 45% live in countries where censorship is the norm. Still, more than half the world’s population across cultures and continents think free speech is very important. But why is that? Where does the principle of free speech come from? How has it been developed over time? Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? And what can people in the digital age learn from past conflicts over where to draw the line?  Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.?


Distribution of countries with press freedom in 2016 – Freedom House

Partly free
Not free


Jacob Mchangama

Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of Justitia a think tank focusing on human rights and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression Center. He has commented extensively on free speech and human rights in outlets including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Jacob has published in academic and peer-reviewed journals, including Human Rights Quarterly, Policy Review and Amnesty International’s Strategic Studies. He is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning book, MEN Ytringsfrihedens Historie i Danmark (BUT: The History of Freedom of Expression in Denmark). He is the author and presenter of the short documentary “Collision: Free speech and religion” (2013). Mr. Mchangama is a 2016 Marshall Memorial Fellow. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his work on free speech and human rights.

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