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 33 - Counter-Revolution: Dutch Patriots, Tom Paine´s Rights of Man and the campaign against Seditious Writings

Faced with bloody terrorism democratic Europe has often reacted with tough measures. The UK Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act of 2019 criminalizes expressing an opinion that is “supportive” of a proscribed organization if done in a way that is “reckless” as to whether it encourages support of terrorism. This makes it rather unnerving to jump into, for example, a Twitter thread on the age-old discussion of whether various groups are terrorists or freedom fighters.

In this episode we’ll see how governments in the late 18th century reacted to a different kind of terror: the spread of revolutionary ideas and practice that shook the established order to the ground, including the actual Terror unleashed after the French Revolution spiraled out of control. Dutch “Patriots” took their cue from the American Revolution, using freedom of speech and hard-hitting newspapers to hammer away at the Stadtholder regime. How would the supposedly liberal and tolerant Dutch react when revolutionary ideas hit fever pitch in the 1780s.

In Britain, a pamphlet war between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine unleashed an unprecedented discussion of first principles that energized the lower classes and frightened the government. Could Britain maintain the delicate balance between order and liberty while holding at bay both revolutionary ideas and armies of France?

In this episode, we will discuss:

  • How the Dutch “Patriot” movement used free speech and partisan newspapers to press for democratic reform and tolerance
  • How the pamphlet “To the People of the Netherlands” became a rallying cry of the Patriot side
  • How the Stadtholder regime used repression and ultimately foreign invasion to silence the Patriots,
  • How the French Revolution briefly brought free speech and democracy back with the establishment of the Batavian Republic
  • How Burkes “Reflections on the Revolution in France” unleashed  a British pamphlet war for and against the principles of the French Revolution
  • How Thomas Paine´s reply to Burke – “Rights of Man” – became the world’s highest selling book and spread the idea of democratic reform to the masses
  • How Prime Minister William Pitt responded by increasing repression of freedom of speech and assembly
  • How the “Royal Proclamation Against Seditious Writings and Publications” unleashed a witch hunt for members of the democratic reform movement
  • How Tom Paine became an enemy of the state, under constant surveillance, convicted of seditious libel and burned in effigy in towns all over Britain


Episode 32 - Policing opinion in the French Revolution with Charles Walton

On Aug. 26, 1789, France’s National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article 11 of the Declaration proclaimed:

The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

The French Revolution abolished pre-publication censorship and prompted a flood of political publications. But revolutionaries were deeply divided over where to draw the line between the declaration’s celebration of “freedom” and condemnation of “abuse” amidst a public sphere in which populists used increasingly incendiary rhetoric to sow division and discord. Old Regime concepts of honor, calumny, and libel survived the Revolution and evolved to justify the policing of opinions perceived to threaten the order and authority of post-revolutionary France, increasingly divided by competing factions. Ultimately, even liberals like Tom Paine — an ardent defender of the integrity and benevolence of the Revolution — had to succumb to the idea of political suppression as the Reign of Terror claimed thousands of victims condemned for speech crimes.

In this conversation, French Revolution expert Charles Walton sheds light on the evolution of press freedom and suppression during the Revolution. Walton is the director of the Early Modern and Eighteenth Century Centre at the University of Warwick in the U.K., has taught at both Yale University and Paris’ Sciences Po, and is the author of the prize-winning book, “Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech.”

The conversation will explore:

  • How the French Revolution abolished pre-publication censorship and unleashed a flood of publications;
  • How almost all parts of French society continued to believe in Old Regime restrictions on post-publication censorship;
  • How Jacobins, including Maximilien Robespierre, were amongst the most libertarian proponents of free speech in the early part of the Revolution;
  • How the climate of free speech under the French Revolution compares to the climate during and after the American Revolution;
  • How free speech restrictions became a tool of bitter political partisans;
  • How approximately a third of those indicted by revolutionary tribunals during the Terror were targeted for speech crimes, resulting in thousands of executions;
  • How the French feminist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gouges, became a prominent victim of the Revolution;
  • How the legal restrictions on free speech were tightened after the Terror;
  • Whether the ideas of Rousseau contributed to the Terror;
  • How competing ideas of free speech and mores stretching back to the Enlightenment help explain contemporary France’s complicated relationship with free speech.


Episode 31 - The Old Regime

In Nov. 2018, French President Emanuel Macron declared war on “offensive and hateful content” on the internet. Subsequently, France adopted strict laws against both online hate speech and fake news, which is thought to threaten France’s liberal democratic values. 

But this is not the first time in history that France has sought to combat supposedly “dangerous content” spread by clandestine networks intent on undermining essential values and moeurs

When Paris became the capital of the High-Enlightenment around the mid-eighteenth century, the Old Regime monarchy created a Maginot Line of overlapping pre- and post-publication censorship. This system was intended to ensure that good books were encouraged and privileged while bad books that attacked the monarchy and Catholic orthodoxy or morals were kept out of circulation or suppressed.  

Just as French regulators today may struggle to distinguish between hate and political speech, it was not easy to draw the line between useful new ideas and subversive philosophy in a society in flux. As Enlightenment ideas took hold and literacy increased, a public sphere emerged from under the shadow of royal absolutism and strict religious orthodoxy. In this sphere, Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot fought to expand the limits of tolerance and free speech, while counter-enlightenment anti-philosophers tried to stem the rising tide of what they saw as godless sedition. Each faction tried to exert decisive influence over the institutions of the Old Regime and land the decisive blow in the battle over the public sphere shaping French mores. 

The stakes were high and the outcome uncertain. But perhaps the events of pre-revolutionary France may help explain why even today the democratically elected president of France has taken the lead in fighting the nebulous concept of “offensive and hateful content.”

In this episode, we will explore:

  • How salons, cafés, and an increase in literacy and print created a new public sphere
  • The ins and outs of pre-and post-publication censorship in the Old Regime
  • How censorship and book monopolies created a booming black market, flooding France with philosophy and pornography 
  • How a culture of honor limited free expression 
  • How royal censors both furthered and frustrated the efforts of Enlightenment authors 
  • How a group of radical Enlightenment philosophers challenged religious and moral authorities from the Salon of Baron D’Holbach and through the pages of the Encyclopédie — a bold and subversive attempt to compile all the knowledge in the world
  • How France’s chief censor saved the Encylopédie from destruction and ensured its eventual triumph 
  • How a 19-year-old teenager became the last person to be executed for blasphemy in France
  • How French philosophers including Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire failed to formulate a coherent and robust free speech doctrine


Episode 30 – Northern Lights, The Scandinavian Press Freedom Breakthrough

In the 1760s and 1770s, Sweden and Denmark-Norway shortly became the epicenter of press freedom protections in Enlightenment Europe.

In 1766, the Swedish Diet passed the Press Freedom Act, making Sweden the first country in the world to provide constitutional protection to both the principles of press freedom and freedom of information. In 1770, Denmark-Norway, under the de-facto rule of German physician Johan Friedrich Struensee, became the first country in the world to abolish any and all restrictions on press freedom. Almost overnight, both Sweden and Denmark-Norway experienced a new vibrant public sphere with debate, discussion and trolling.

But in 1772, King Gustav III ended Sweden’s so-called Age of Liberty — and with it, the era of the liberal press. That same year, Struensee lost not only his power, but his hands, legs — and head — as he was dismembered and ousted in a coup that severely restricted press freedom.

But how did Sweden and Denmark-Norway become trailblazers of press freedom, if only for the briefest of time? Find out in this episode where we explore:

  • How Sweden’s Age of Liberty introduced parliamentarism but kept freedom of speech suppressed by censorship
  • How writers like Peter Forsskål and Anders Nordencrantz argued for press freedom inspired by Enlightenment ideals
  • How Peter Forsskål’s “Thoughts on Civil Liberty” was banned but still inspired a new generation of Swedish politicians
  • How the MP and priest Anders Chydenius paved the way for the Press Freedom Act in the Swedish Parliament
  • How Struensee became the man behind the throne of the mentally ill King Christian VII
  • How Struensee tried to usher in Enlightenment Now! with 1800 orders and edicts in 16 months
  • How Struensee eliminated two centuries of censorship with the stroke of a pen
  • How Struensee’s tsunami of Enlightenment reforms and sexual liberation came back to haunt him in critical pamphlets and newspapers
  • How Struensee had to compromise his free speech ideals in 1771
  • How Struensee was ousted and executed by disgruntled nobles who ended his free speech experimentation and cracked down on dissent
  • Why critical writings about herring fishery should never be allowed



Episode 29 – The Philosopher King – Enlightened Despotism, part 2, Prussia

In his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant declared: “[E]nlightenment requires nothing but freedom … to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: ‘Do not argue!’ … Only one ruler in the world says: ‘Argue as much as you please, but obey!’”

That ruler was Frederick the Great — and his influence was not lost on Kant.

“[T]his age is the age of enlightenment,” Kant declared. “[T]he century of Frederick.”

Frederick the Great ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786 and launched a blitzkrieg of Enlightenment reforms impacting religious tolerance and freedom of speech. He was hailed as a philosopher king by Voltaire and gave refuge to scandalous writers who had been persecuted around Europe. But his rule was erratic, and often Absolutism would trump Enlightenment ideals.

In this episode, we cover Frederick the Great’s reign and his attitude and policies towards freedom of thought and the press. Topics include:

  • How Frederick’s Enlightenment ideals reformed Prussia
  • How he favored Enlightenment for the elite, but not the masses
  • How Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Holbach clashed over the merits of Frederick’s enlightened despotism
  • How Frederick offered refuge to scandalous authors such as the French atheist Julien Offray de La Mettrie
  • The dos and don’ts of Prussian censorship
  • How the enlightened Prussian public sphere differed from its French and American counterparts
  • How the enlightened Prussian elite, including Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, praised both freedom of speech and Frederick the Great’s Enlightened Despotism
  • How the death of Frederick and the ascension of Friedrich Wilhelm resulted in a backlash against enlightenment values, including free speech and religious tolerance



Episode 28 – Writing on Human Skin – Enlightened Despotism, part I, Russia

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, progress, tolerance and rationality attracted not only philosophers — even absolute monarchs dreamt of “Enlightenment Now.” But how do you incorporate the enlightenment’s revelations without undermining the traditions and ideas that legitimate absolute rule in the first place? Fortunately for Europe’s modernizing rulers, some of the continent’s most prominent 18th century philosophers — including Voltaire — stood ready to praise the new winds of “enlightened despotism” that took hold in places like Russia and Prussia.

In this episode, we cover Russia — the ground zero of enlightened despotism — and Tsar Peter the Great, who, according to Voltaire, single-handedly dragged the country across both time and place from the Dark Ages and Asia into the 18th century and Europe.

Among the topics tackled are:

  • How the benefits of modern science, learning and the fresh air of religious tolerance attracted Peter the Great;
  • How Peter believed in “moving fast and breaking tradition” and combined enlightenment reforms with ruthless suppression;
  • How Peter kicked off his modernizing reform with a fashion statement: ordering men to shave their beards and women to dress like Parisians;
  • How Peter’s reforms planted the seed for more liberal Enlightenment reforms;
  • How Catherine the Great introduced the idea and principle of freedom of speech into Russia’s deeply traditional culture;
  • How Catherine modeled her “Great Instruction” on the ideas of Montesquieu and Beccaria and corresponded with thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert;
  • How Catherine reversed her course and tightened censorship;
  • How the French Revolution caused Catherine to crack down on radical Russian writers like Alexander Radishchev and Nikolay Novikov; and
  • How Alexander Radishchev relied on “freedom of the press as the great bulwark of liberty” to write the most radical and robust defense of free speech in Russian history.



Episode 27 - How Enlightening

After a brief detour into the present, we return to Ground Zero of the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe, with this recap of past episodes and brief overview of the themes and countries to be explored in the upcoming episodes as rationality and secularization sweeps the continent turning tradition and authority upside down. Among other we touch upon: 

  • How the early enlightenment resulted in greater religious tolerance’ 
  • Why tolerance did not automatically go hand in hand with freedom of speech 
  • How the “Dutch Dark Web” spread radical philosophy across Europe through clandestine printing presses and networks 
  • How the treatise of “The Three Impostors” shocked Europe  
  • How women enjoyed greater “conversational freedom” to discuss science, philosophy and religion 
  • How erotic and obscene literature made headway across the continent 
  • Why European states´ book production and consumption went hand in hand with their respective censorship regime 

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. 



Episode 26 - Oslo Freedom Forum Special with Megha Rajagopalan and Yuan Yang

June 4th, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the bloody culmination of the Chinese government´s Tiananmen Massacre of pro-democracy students and activists. But all public discussion and memories of the massacre have been erased within China itself. In our second episode from the Oslo Freedom Forum we will take a trip behind the Great Firewall into modern day China where the most ambitious and sophisticated attempt to control the flow and content of information in the history of mankind is taking place. To enlighten us, we sat down with Megha Rajagopalan who is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and Yuan Yang who is Financial Times´s Beijing correspondent.  In this discussion we explore:

  • The structure of Chinese online censorship and surveillance, in terms of scope and purpose.
  • How the Chinese Government applies new technologies like facial recognition and AI to ensure conformity in thoughts and action.
  • How the online public is being ‘flooded’ with pro-government propaganda in order to suppress criticism.
  • How Xinjiang province has been turned into a surveillance police state
  • How Western Companies, who enjoy the protection of the rule of law, play a role in the Chinese censorship system
  • How China is exporting its super charged system on censorship beyond its borders, and why even western liberal democracies may not be immune.
  • How the extensive censorship may actually limit the Chinese government´s endeavors to control and monitor its citizens.
  • Why there may still be grounds for optimism



Episode 25 - Oslo Freedom Forum Special with Larry Diamond

Today´s episode is going to be a radical departure from the chronological timeline of the general podcast so far. I´m currently in Oslo for the annual Oslo Freedom Forum, organized by the Human Rights Foundation. The Oslo Freedom Forum is a unique gathering of human rights and democracy activists from all over the world joining forces to connect, share ideas and build alliances to strengthen freedom and undermine authoritarianism. To take advantage of the Oslo Freedom Forum I have decided to do a number of Expert Opinions on current cutting-edge topics related to free speech. The first episode will look at the why the so-called “Democratic Recession” is mirrored by a “Free Speech Recession,” with Stanford Professor Larry Diamond. In this discussion we explore:

  • The nature and consequences of the “Democratic Recession”
  • Why restricting freedom of expression is the precondition for the assault on democracy
  • Why and modern authoritarian populist repression differs from the totalitarian methods of the 20th century
  • An exposé of the step-by-step authoritarian´s guide to dismantle independent media, dissent and civil society (meant as a warning not a manual!)
  • Why restrictions of free speech in liberal democracies embolden censorship efforts in authoritarian regimes
  • The consequences of the current American administration´s hostility to independent media and disengagement from promoting free speech norms
  • Whether social media has been a net benefit or liability to the causes of free speech and democracy
  • Why and how global norms matter, and can help reverse the “Free Speech Recession”

Larry Diamond is professor of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. He has written extensively on democracy and is most recently the author of Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.



Episode 24 - Expert Opinion - Stephen Solomon part two: The Sedition Act

In 1787, the newly authored U.S. Constitution was sent out to the states for ratification. Despite fierce objections from Anti-Federalists, the Constitution did not include a bill of rights protecting freedom of speech and the press. The Anti-Federalist newspaper the Independent Gazetteer published an ironic comment on what the future of free speech would look like if the Constitution was ratified:

Ah! what glorious days are coming; how I anticipate the brilliancy of the American court! … [H]ere is the president going in state to the senate house to confirm the law for the abolition of the liberty of the press. Men and brethren will not these things be so?

Even though the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the Independent Gazetteer’s withering sarcasm had been prophetic: On July 14, 1798, President John Adams signed the Sedition Act into law, making it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame…or to bring them…into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States.”

A mere seven years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” Congress had done just that. The Sedition Act paved the way for the prosecution and imprisonment of both journalists, editors, politicians, and ordinary Americans engaging in political, satirical and symbolic speech.

In part two of this conversation with NYU professor Stephen Solomon, we explore how the Americans who had championed freedom of speech as the “great bulwark of liberty” and thumbed their noses at English sedition laws in the lead up to the Revolution came to adopt their own sedition law. We discuss issues including:

  • The deeply polarized political environment of the 1790s;
  • The fiercely partisan attacks of both Federalist and Democratic-Republican newspapers on political opponents;
  • How the Sedition Act differed from seditious libel under English common law;
  • The arguments for and against the constitutionality of the Sedition Act;
  • James Madison’s eloquent and elaborate defense of robust free speech protections;
  • The congressman, journalists and ordinary Americans who were prosecuted and imprisoned for voicing their opinions;
  • The prosecutorial zeal of Secretary of State Matthew Pickering and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (aka “Old Bacon Face”);
  • The unintended consequences of the Sedition Act which strengthened Democratic-Republican newspapers and politicians and weakened Federalists; and
  • Thomas Jefferson’s magnanimous inauguration speech.

Marjorie Deane Professor of Journalism at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute; teaches First Amendment law and is founding editor of First Amendment Watch, which covers current conflicts over freedom of expression. Author of Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech.



Episode 23 - Expert Opinion - Stephen Solomon

The First Amendment of the US Constitution was adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791. This “Great bulwark of liberty” provides that

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

In this conversation with professor Stephen Solomon we will explore the origins and drafting history of the First Amendment including:

  • The inspiration from early state constitutions and declarations in Virginia and Pennsylvania
  • The Articles of Confederation
  • The fierce debate surrounding the Constitutional Convention and ratification process.
  • How Federalists and anti-Federalists clashed over the necessity of a bill of rights
  • How some Federalists used the Heckler´s Veto to silence anti-Federalists
  • James Madison´s first draft bill of rights and why Madison thought that the American conception of freedom of speech differed substantially from the British conception
  • Whether Freedom of Speech is really “the First Freedom”
  • What were the essential justification for freedom of speech envisaged by the Founders
  • Whether the Founders would agree with 21. Century standards of free speech as developed by the Supreme Court

Marjorie Deane Professor of Journalism at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute; teaches First Amendment law and is founding editor of First Amendment Watch, which covers current conflicts over freedom of expression. Author of Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech.



Episode 22 - Fighting Words

In the second half of the 18th century, American Patriots showed that freedom of the press was a potent weapon against authority. Not even the world’s most formidable empire could stop them from speaking truth, lies, and insults to power.

In 1765, the announcement of the Stamp Act kicked off a tsunami of dissent in Colonial pamphlets, newspapers, taverns, and town meetings. The outpouring of protest shaped a public opinion increasingly hostile to taxation without representation and in favor of popular sovereignty. Additional taxes and disabilities imposed by Parliament further radicalized the Patriot side and the anti-British propaganda. The revolutionary dissent included both principled arguments, pamphlet wars, slander, and some genuine “fake news.”  

Since prosecutions for seditious libel had effectively been abolished by the Zenger case in 1735 (see episode 21), the British were powerless to stop the onslaught of Patriot fighting words. More than ever, press freedom had become the “Great Bulwark of Liberty.”

Though Patriots constantly invoked the principle of freedom of speech, Loyalist printers and newspapers were subjected to the “Patriot’s Veto” through intimidation and mob violence.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” became a sensation and pushed many Patriot fence-sitters into the independence camp. And just before and after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, several states protected freedom of the press in rights declarations.   

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • How a mix of ideas from classical antiquity and the European Enlightenment inspired the founding generation;
  • How the democratization of access to print technology created a vibrant public sphere in Colonial America;
  • How pamphlet wars were the 18th century equivalent of Twitter feuds;
  • How the Boston Gazette became the centerpiece of #theresistance and the launch pad for fighting words directed at the British and Loyalists;
  • How symbolic speech such as liberty trees, liberty poles and cartoons rallied popular opinion;
  • How the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston became the “Headquarters of the Revolution”;
  • How newspapers used “fake news” and analog “photoshopping” to further the Patriot cause;
  • How Loyalist printers were silenced through intimidation and mob violence with the tacit consent of prominent Patriots like Thomas Paine and James Madison;
  • How Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” steeled Patriots’ resolve and made the case for independence; and
  • How the ideas of freedom of the press and speech were included in rights declarations of states like Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1776.


Episode 21 - The Bulwark of Liberty

18th century America was impacted and influenced by the so-called Glorious Revolution in the Motherland. And no-one had a bigger impact on American attitudes towards freedom of speech than Cato’s Letters written by the Radical Whigs John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Cato´s Letters created a powerful free speech meme, that went viral in the colonies: “Freedom of Speech is the great Bulwark of Liberty”.  The reach of Cato’s principles grew exponentially as colonists liked, shared and commented on them in newspapers, pamphlets and taverns. Americans were persuaded that “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man”.  As a consequence, grand juries and juries refused to indict and convict colonists for seditious libel when criticizing governments and officials.

Despite the practical defeat of libels laws in colonial courts, legislative assemblies continued to threaten free speech. Under legislative privilege provocative writers could be jailed and fined by their own representatives. And even American heroes were sometimes willing to sacrifice principle.

In this episode we’ll explore

  • How coffee-houses expanded the public sphere by cultivating the sharing of news and ideas, including revolutionary ones.
  • How the common law crime of seditious libel impacted writers
  • How English writers including Matthew Tindal, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon paved the way for American ideas on free speech
  • How the editor of the New England Courant in Boston combined anti-vaxxer propaganda with free speech advocacy
  • How the 16-year old Benjamin Franklin used Cato’s Letters to argue for freedom of speech when his brother James was in jail
  • How the New York Weekly Journal became America’s first opposition newspaper and justified its savage hit pieces on New York governor William Cosby with Cato’s free speech principles
  • How a jury acquitted the printer of the New York Weekly Journal Peter Zenger, even though he was guilty according to the law
  • How legislative privilege was used to punish colonialists for offending their own representatives
  • How Benjamin Franklin defended legislative privilege and the jailing of a Pennsylvania man for his writings


Episode 20 - The Seeds of Enlightenment

1685 was a watershed year for events that would lead to what we call the Enlightenment. France´s Sun King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and initiated a policy of religious persecution of Protestants. In England, the Catholic James II assumed the throne to the horror of the protestant majority in Parliament. From their exiles in the Dutch Republic, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote his groundbreaking defense of religious tolerance “Commentaire Philosophique” and John Locke wrote the original Latin version of his Letter Concerning Toleration. In this episode, we trace the seeds of the Enlightenment covering events in France, the Dutch Republic, and England.

  • Why did Louis XIV revoke the Edict of Nantes and what were the consequences?
  • Why did the Dutch Republic become famous for its religious tolerance and open debate in the 17th Century?
  • Who was the late 16th century Dutch thinker who opposed censorship six decades before Milton?
  • Why were several members of Spinoza´s circle of radical Dutch freethinkers targeted by censorship and repression?
  • Why was the complete work of Spinoza and even the reworking of his ideas banned in the Dutch Republic?
  • Why were Pierre Bayle’s ideas so controversial that he lost his professorship?
  • Why did the Anglican majority in the English Parliament oppose religious tolerance favoured by both Charles II and James II?
  • How tolerant was the Toleration Act really?
  • How did John Locke provide the intellectual killer blow to the English Licensing Act?
  • What were the consequences of the end of pre-publication censorship in England?


Episode 19 – Expert Opinion – Steven Nadler on Spinoza’s ‘book forged in hell’ and the right to ‘think what you like and say what you think‘

Baruch Spinoza (also known as Benedict de Spinoza) was born in Amsterdam in 1632. While his given name means “blessing” in both Hebrew and Latin, Spinoza’s “Theological-political treatise” from 1670 was condemned as “a book forged in hell.” Spinoza himself was denounced as a dangerous heretic or atheist by religious and secular rulers alike, and was pilloried in the court of public opinion.

Spinoza’s apparent crime consisted in systematically eroding the foundation of revealed religion and the authority of the Bible. But in addition to his materialist philosophy, Spinoza championed freedom of thought and expression as the precondition for social peace in a free democratic state. According to Spinoza, “The most tyrannical governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right over his thoughts” and therefore, “In a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks.” These were radical ideas in early modern Europe and too much to stomach for even the tolerant Dutch.

With me on this episode of Clear and Present Danger to explore Spinoza’s ideas on freedom of thought and expression is University of Wisconsin-Madison philosophy professor and Spinoza expert Steven Nadler. Nadler is the author of “Spinoza: A Life” and “A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age.”

In the episode we discuss issues including:

  • Why the Dutch Republic was tolerant and liberal compared to most other states at the time
  • Why Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam
  • Why Spinoza’s ideas of religion shocked and outraged just about everyone
  • Why Spinoza thought social peace depends on freedom of thought and expression
  • Where Spinoza drew the line when it comes to free speech and religion


Episode 18 - Colonial Dissent: Blasphemy, Libel and Tolerance in 17th Century America

Americans are the most supportive of free speech around the world. 95 % of Americans think it’s very important to be able to criticize the government without censorship and 77% support the right to offend religious feelings. But in 17th Century colonial America criticizing the government, officials or the laws was punishable as seditious libel and could result in the cropping of ears, whippings, boring of the tongue and jail time. Religious speech was also tightly controlled. Blasphemy was punishable by death in several colonies and religious dissenters such as Quakers were viciously persecuted in Puritan New England. Despite the harsh climate of the 17th century, the boundaries of political speech and religious tolerance were significantly expanded.  In this episode we’ll look into

  • How the crime of seditious libel was exported to colonial America
  • Why peddlers of “fake news” were seen as enemies of the state
  • Why a Harvard student was whipped for blasphemy
  • Why four Quakers were hanged in Boston and many more whipped, branded and jailed
  • How colonies like Pennsylvania, Carolina and Maryland combined religious tolerance with laws against religious offense,
  • How Roger Williams´ ”Rogue Island” and West New Jersey adopted policies of radical religious toleration´
  • The dangers of mixing alcohol and politics in Maryland
  • How William Penn promoted religious tolerance and political intolerance
  • How the colonies operated a strict licensing regime to suppress printing
  • How John Wise protested taxation without representation and became “America’s First Great Democrat".


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.

Get in touch