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Jacob Mchangama on the Campbell Conversations

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Jacob Mchangama

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Jacob Mchangama. He's a lawyer, and founder and director of Justitia, a Copenhagen-based think tank focusing on human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law. He recently published the book, "Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media."

On Friday, April 30 he'll deliver a lecture at the Maxwell School auditorium at Syracuse University titled, "Is Free Speech Killing Democracy?".
More information can be found here.

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Jacob Mchangama. He's a lawyer and founder and director of Justitia, a Copenhagen-based think tank focusing on human rights freedom of speech and the rule of law. He recently published a big, important, yet eminently readable book titled "Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media." On Friday, April 30 at 4 p.m., he'll be delivering a public lecture in the Maxwell School Auditorium, a Syracuse University titled "Is Free Speech Killing Democracy?" Information on attending this lecture can be found on the campus Public Affairs Institute's web page Mr. Mchangama, welcome to the program.

Jacob Mchangama: Thank you so much.

GR: I should mention for our listeners, in case any of our conversation sounds just a little glitchy, I'm in New York, and you are in Denmark, and we are speaking across the ocean here. Your book is receiving a lot of extremely high praise from many different quarters, and I won't read the endorsements here, but they are truly impressive. The work seems to me to be magisterial, and so we'll go through different aspects of your book. But let me start with a couple of really basic questions. And the first one is, is there a central arc or a theme of the book that you can briefly relate to our listeners?

JM: Yeah, well, you know, for much for most of recorded human history, I think free speech has been the exception. And it's a rare thing. And maybe in many ways it's sort of counterintuitive to our species. And the history of free speech is sort of seesawing. So free speech is never completely won or lost or it can be completely lost. But sometimes it comes back which means, I think that even though we tend to take free speech for granted in our day and age in open liberal democracies, I think that's a dangerous attitude. And I think there's much to suggest that we're actually living in a free speech recession. So we're in the end maybe of a golden age. And whether that whether we will be able to renew it depends. I think ultimately on those who are of us who are the beneficiaries of 2500 years of free speech history.

GR: You know, I want to get into what you see as the recession there in a few minutes. Second one is how and why did you get the idea to write this book now? Is it because of this recession that you saw or did something else prompt you?

JM: Yeah. So it's basically based on what I saw. I also did a podcast on the history of free speech called "Clear and Present Danger A History of Free Speech," which I started, I think back in 2017. So in many ways the book is an attempt to gather all that information and boil it down to the essentials on 500 pages or so. But in many ways, you know, you could ask why would a spoiled middle-class kid from Copenhagen, Denmark, which is sort of in many ways a model democracy, write a book on free speech, you know, given that I haven't exactly experienced a dictatorship or authoritarianism, but in 2005, Denmark became sort of the epicenter of a global battle of values over the relationship between free speech and religion. When a Danish newspaper published a number of cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. And that led to a huge outcry. A number of Muslim majority countries initiated a boycott, tried to use the crisis to adopt a global blasphemy ban at the United Nations. And more worryingly, there was an attempt by certain extremists to influence what I call the jihadis veto. So basically trying to murder and kill responsible editors and cartoonist, which of course is a very extreme measure in a secular liberal country like Denmark, where we thought that sort of the right to offend religious feelings had been settled. So that in the aftermath of the Enlightenment almost. But that really ignited a huge debate about the role of free speech. And I saw in the following years that a lot of people seemed to use free speech sort of more strategically. So some people on the left were uncomfortable with defending free speech that they saw as punching down on a vulnerable minority and as sort of the offender of legitimizing racism. At last, people on the right saw the cartoons as an exercise of free speech that had to be defended at all costs. And then sort of things changed a bit. A center-right government came in. And due to the various jihadist terrorist attacks and extremism around Europe, a center-right government adopted these laws that restricted free speech and that were sort of aimed mostly at extremist Muslims, but that nonetheless restricted free speech and religious speech. And then suddenly you had people on the left who said, whoa, now we're you know we're sacrificing one of our fundamental freedoms whereas people on the right who had been free speech absolutists during the cartoon crisis said, well, free speech is important, but in order to save free speech, we have to limit the free speech of those who are you know, the enemies of free speech. And so I really got interested in, you know, we talk so much about free speech often in democracies. And so I wondered I was curious about what does this principle mean? Where does it come from? What is it? Does it, is it as important as some people say, you know, what does it mean when a society does not enjoy free speech? What does it take in terms of institutions and culture and law to ensure free speech and so on? So that's what I started out doing with the podcast. And that's ultimately what I tried to sort of to make the case for or to explore in the book.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer, activist and author and we're discussing his new book titled "Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media." So you mentioned just then that the book deals with thinking about institutions and culture, but at an individual level, are there greatest heroes in your story of free speech?

JM: Yeah, there are quite a few great heroes. One of the interesting things I've found, though, is that quite a few of the heroes of free speech were not particularly principled or that, you know, they had limits on where free speech should be drawn. So, you know, I tried to coin the term "Milton's curse" because John Milton is often credited as not entirely correctly, but he's often credited as being one of the first proponents of abandoning censorship, pre-publication censorship. With his pamphlet from 1644, the Areopagitica. But when you read it carefully, you know it's obviously written in beautiful prose and lots of the arguments are made even today. But when you read it more carefully you see that Milton is certainly not advocating unlicensed printing for Catholics or atheists or and he's perfectly comfortable with book burnings of books that go too far. And unfortunately, that's something that we see throughout the history of free speech people like Voltaire and others. But you know what some of my, one of my favorite proponents of free speech would probably be Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist who made the case, which I think is really relevant today. We see some people arguing that free speech is dangerous, is being weaponized against minorities. And Frederick Douglass had the complete opposite view. So he said that free the right of speech is a very precious, precious one, especially to the oppressed, and argued very forcefully that, you know, if only there had been free speech in the South then slavery would not survive. Because we forget often that in the 1830s that were very draconian laws limiting abolitionist speech and publications in the South. So that could send you to jail or worse, at least on paper. So I think he's one of my favorite heroes, champions of free speech. There are, of course, many others like Spinoza is another one Gandhi, I think, made a very eloquent case. He was punished for sedition by the British for advocating peaceful resistance to the British colonialism. And at a time where in the early 1920s where if you know if you were the US Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment as not offering any protection to people who were sentenced to ten or 20 years in prison for posting involvement in World War I or sort of advocating radical socialist ideas at the time. And Gandhi at that time advocated a conception of free speech which you would only limit when you were contemplating or inciting violence. So I think that that's another quite interesting case of someone using the idea of free speech to fight against oppression. And that's one of the sort of key themes in the book is that that free speech in many ways is, is perhaps the most potent engine of human equality you ever stumble upon by our species which is, unfortunately, another document that is very popular today where many tend to see free speech as a weapon, as I mentioned, being used against minorities and to oppress and to entrench unequal power relationships.

GR: You've got a chapter, and this is kind of a personal interest of mine, but you've got a chapter in your book titled, "The Not So Dark Ages." And we usually think of that period in between the Roman era and the Renaissance as an arid time when it comes to expression and advancement. Kenneth Clark once said that Western civilization got through by the skin of our teeth, but of late there have been revisions among historians to those accounts. Tell me what you found in terms of free speech. I assume it's a more nuanced story as well.

JM: Yeah. So on the one hand, you can say, you know, the origins of free speech go back to the Athenian democracies and where they had pretty modern conceptions of free speech, you know, not completely the same as ours today. But, you know, they had an egalitarian conception of free speech, I would argue, even though it was not, you know, that political system was not egalitarian by ours, by our standards, given that it was limited to freeborn male citizens.

But they also had a culture of free speech which even included foreigners. So when we fast forward to the Middle Ages, we don't have a conception of free speech as such, which is probably to do with the fact that representative government was all but snuffed out. However, you know, you have the Abbasid Caliphate and the adjacent territories, which over the Abbasid Caliphate have emerged as the strongest Islamic polity at the time. And there a number of caliphs took the means to translate rather almost all secular Greek philosophy and science. And their rule emphasized sort of pagan philosophy and reason and rationality and including some radical free thinkers who's like Razi and al-Rawandi, whose likes you would not see in the Middle Ages in Western Christendom. And then in Western Christendom, you have the emergence of universities where pagan philosophy is also and of course, especially Aristotle becomes sort of irresistible to scholars so initially, it's resisted by the church and, and universities, but it becomes, you know, academic freedom and a culture of poking around becomes sort of a competitive advantage if you like. So when the University of Paris sort of adopts a speech code banning Aristotelian philosophy, other universities tell these scholars who were thirsting for Aristotle and others say, you know, we'll come to us, you know, we'll give you access to Aristotle and all these banned books. And I think that has a huge impact on later developments, you know, scientific revolution and ideas about natural law that would be radicalized during the Enlightenment. At the same time, there were suddenly very orchestrated attempts to crack down on heresy and to sort of try and uphold the authority of the church. But so, what emerges is a much more nuanced, I think, picture that when free speech makes a breakthrough, suddenly would probably not have happened, at least not happened in the same way without some of the developments in the Middle Ages.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Jacob Mchangama. He's the founder and director of Justicia, a Copenhagen-based think tank focusing on human rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. He's also the author of a new book titled "Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media." So you talked a little bit before about the United States. You mentioned Frederick Douglass. But in this country, in the United States, what would you regard looking at it from the outside as our darkest moments so far in our saga of free speech?

JM: I think the 19th century and the laws against abolitionist speech must rank among the darkest moments. And it's I think it's, you know, a topic that hasn't really been explored that much. And, of course, it's, you know, in many ways extraordinary because this is after the passage of the Constitution and the First Amendment. Of course, the First Amendment didn't apply to the states at the time. But nonetheless, so take Virginia, which was the first state even before the Declaration of Independence to adopt a Bill of Rights, which said that press freedom of the press was a bulwark of liberty. It would only be restricted by despotic states. And then in 1836, Virginia adopts a draconian law cracking down on evolution of speech, sort of saying that, you know, it's a crime to assert white must have property in the black slaves. So that's quite astonishing then. You know, there are many interesting periods, I would say that the period around the World War I is also, you know, the Espionage and Sedition Act, which as I, as I alluded to before, would send peaceful activists in prison for ten or 20 years for, for, for peaceful resistance to, to World War I and even see, you know, a crackdown on academic freedom and diversity. So you had Columbia University firing professors for opposing World War One, and they were praised in The New York Times editorial level at the time. So that says something about the intolerance culture towards pacifist speech at the time.

GR: And how does the age of social media now complicate free speech issues? It really opens up the issue of public speech, I guess. But tell me how how how you think this changes things.

JM: Yeah, it's a very good question. In many ways, I see sort of a that it's the latest chapter in a recurrent theme throughout the history of free speech, sort of a contest between an egalitarian model of free speech with its roots in ancient Athenian democracy and a more elitist top-down approach with its roots in the Roman Republic And you know what? What I term elite panic always tends to break out at times in history where the Democratic or where the public sphere is democratized, expanded to previously voiceless groups, whether through new technology could be the printing press, radio, or through political developments. So political rights to minorities, women and so on. And of course, the Internet very much is founded on the egalitarian model of providing everyone with a voice in public affairs. And so that has seen the traditional gatekeepers within institutional authorities to regulate the public sphere, worry about the consequences of that, especially now that we've got these huge centralized social media platforms that are very different from the beginning of the Internet era, which was a much more horizontal decentralized model than today, where, you know, Facebook has maybe, I don't know, 3 billion users. And of course, it's true that when you have these types of disruptions and expansion of the public sphere, there are harms and costs involved. And we see that with disinformation and hate speech and extremism and so on. However, I think that when looking back at all these previous outbreaks of really panic I think that, you know, the benefits of egalitarian free speech over time tend to vastly outweigh the harms and costs, and that in particular, the attempts to rein in egalitarian free speech by top-down approaches often draconian ones, are not only counterproductive but also lead to policies that that hurt groups various groups and that we tend to think of as dark chapters, ones know, later down the generations.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and my guest is the Danish lawyer and writer Jacob Mchangama. Well, I want to come back to something that you mentioned in the first part of the program when you were talking about recent recessions and the progress of free speech or maybe it will be maybe it won't see what you think. But certainly, you alluded to this. There has been a lot of debate over free speech in recent years in this country in the United States in terms of whether it's being more threatened from the left or whether it's being more threatened from the right. And for example, this has been particularly an intense debate on college and university campuses. I think you alluded to that as well. I can say that that speech here at Syracuse University now does seem more policed than it used to be, whether that's for good or for bad. What's the what do you think is the central tradeoff or tension here that's at the core of this struggle, this debate?

JM: Yeah, it's a big paradox in many ways, because the First Amendment offers the strongest legal protection of free speech, probably in the history of humankind. So, you know, back in 1798 the amendment would not protect you from being put in prison if you made a joke about President John Adams. But today it would be very difficult to imagine a joke about Joe Biden that would see you arrested and put in prison. But on the other hand, the culture of free speech in the U.S., I think is being eroded from both sides. And in many ways, I think the culture of free speech is probably more important than legal protections. So the First Amendment the wording, the First Amendment has not been changed since it was ratified in 1791, but the legal protection has expanded dramatically over the years. And that, of course, reflects an underlying change in the culture of tolerance that has then sort of been entrenched by justices at the Supreme Court but reflecting underlying changes in society as such. So I don't think probably not just these radical judges that suddenly change everything. It reflected changes in society from below. And so we see on the left. But, you know, the term cancel culture is very contested. I actually think it's a useful term, even though it's very contested and disliked by some so the attempt but we also have to be precise about what cancel culture is because there's a fair criticism of the concept called cancel culture. Where some say, well, you know if you speak out in public, you can't expect there won't be any consequence that you won't be criticized. And I completely agree. And, you know, that criticism might sometimes be unfair. It might be set, a satirical might be very harsh. That's, you know, part and parcel of free speech. You can't say something controversial and then expect everyone to just answer politely. However, I think there's a fundamental difference between trying to reply to arguments that you vehemently disagree with, with harsh criticism, and then to try and punish speakers or ensure that they don't have any platform at all, even though it's not done by the state. So if students say, well, we don't like speakers with particular viewpoints, we don't want them to be able to speak at a university or if they're invited we'll disrupt and heckle their talks or even at cultural institutions, you know, saying we can't publish an op-ed by certain politicians because we think that's too controversial. I think that's a danger. But I think in you know, in the past year or so, a very worrying countertrend is that, you know, Republican-dominated legislatures have sort of responded to this development not by being principled proponents of free speech, even though conservatives talk a lot about the dangers towards free speech from cancel culture, but by trying to use state power to create new orthodoxies and not just sort of in primary school, but even in colleges and higher educations, that is you can't teach basic concepts on gender or race or, you know, even the history of the United States. And that, of course, is a huge danger as well. I hope that the First Amendment will sort of block the most draconian of these bills. But what they suggest is that there's a demand from Republican conservative voters that they that politicians are responding to. So there's a demand for intolerance among conservatives about so-called critical race theory and these things. So in that sense, you could say that both sides are trying to police their orthodoxies.

GR: We've only got about a minute left. I want to squeeze in two questions if I can. So this is kind of like our lightning round. First of all, in 20 seconds or so, personal question, have you ever felt like your speech was constrained?

JM: I've always been lucky. For some reason. I've never really you know, I've never been in trouble with the law. I've never sort of been the subject of any serious canceling. I've had one or two posts removed from social media, but that's about it.

GR: OK. And then finally, and just a few seconds after a book like this, and I highly recommend it to all our listeners, it is readable, but it is big and it is important what the heck do you write next?

JM: Well, I'm working on a new project called "The Future of Free Speech." So the idea is to try and see the whole idea of free speech in context and probably come up with constructive solutions on how we can actually use the concept of free speech and access to information to counter some of the harms that are inherent in the exercise of free speech by extremists and others.

GR: Great. We'll have to leave it there. That was Jacob Mchangama, and his book is titled "A History of Free Speech." And on Friday, April 30 at 4 p.m., he'll be delivering a public lecture in the Maxwell School Auditorium at Syracuse University titled "Is Free Speech Killing Democracy?" Jacob, thanks again for talking with me, and I really look forward to your visit to Syracuse.

JM: Thank you, Grant. Looking forward to it as well.

GR: All right. You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.