Free Speech, History, Top Stories

Why Free Speech Matters

From 1980 – 2003 the number of countries with a free press grew from 51 to 78. This increase was also proportionately significant. In 1980 34% of the world’s then 161 countries had a free press. In 2003 41% of the world’s 193 countries had newspapers free to criticize their own governments and inform their citizens without censorship. Those of us growing up in that period thought we belonged to a generation that could take free speech for granted and see this principle become universally entrenched. But 2004 would mark the beginning of a constant decline in global press freedom lasting until this day.

From the high-water mark in 2003, we’re down to 31% of the world’s countries where journalists don’t have to worry about being imprisoned (262 reporters were behind bars in 2017). 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. Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey are among the worst offenders. But In liberal democracies, free speech has also become a sometimes toxic issue. The President of the United States has consistently called for stricter laws against libel targeted at the “fake news media” which is “the enemy of the people”.

Trump’s anti-media rhetoric is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the rants that former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez specialized in. Trump’s censorious tendencies have led some to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the real “leader of the free world”. But Germany is no safe haven for free speech. Merkel’s government has adopted a draconian and arbitrary law against “illegal content” on social media which has seen both political speech and satire removed by Twitter. So illiberal is the law that members of Putin’s United Russia party essentially copy and pasted it and proposed their own version last summer.

Among citizens of democracies, free speech has become tribal. Ideologically driven camps uncompromisingly insist on free speech when it suits their agenda only to deny its relevance when exercised by their opponents. Advancing free speech as a fundamental value on a principled basis has become rare.

This begs the question: what’s at stake if both the legal protection and cultural environment sustaining free speech continues to deteriorate? The first chapter in the early history of free speech might provide important insights into the relationship between free speech, democracy, and violence.

The Athenian democracy from 507-322 BC had free speech built into its very DNA. But free speech was an inherent part of the political system and culture, not an individual human right protecting you against the state. The Athenians had two overlapping but separate concepts of free speech. The first is called “isegoria” which may be translated as “equality of speech”. The second concept is “parrhesia” or “uninhibited” speech. Isegoria would be exercised in the assembly – the heart of Athen’s direct and egalitarian democracy – where citizens met to propose, debate and adopt laws.

Hadrian’s Library, North side of the Acropolis of Athens in Greece

The eminent Athenian statesman Pericles gave a famous funeral oration that shows the intimate relationship between democracy and equality of speech, he said: “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people” and “We Athenians… take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions…the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.”

Parrhesia would be exercised by writers of comedy and tragedy, philosophers and ordinary people. In his comedies, Aristophanes would troll the high and mighty and poke fun at the Gods. The two rockstars of Western philosophy Plato and Aristotle set up academies where they publicly criticized and scrutinized the very democracy that allowed them to philosophize freely.

But free speech and democracy were not universally approved. Twice the Athenian democracy was overthrown by oligarchic regimes. On both occasions, free speech fell by the wayside. In 415 BC the Athenians embarked on a disastrous expedition to conquer Syracuse in Sicily where they lost most of their navy and infantry. Athenians started panicking and blaming democracy for the outcome. In 411 BC a group of oligarchs called the Four Hundred saw their chance to finally establish rule by “the best and wisest” and purge the lower classes from power. Leading democratic leaders were assassinated and the democratic institutions were intimidated into serving as the mouthpiece of the schemers. The 5th Century BC Athenian Historian Thucydides wrote a chilling account that really brings to life how the conspirators gained control over the democratic institutions of Athens and how this affected the proudly democratic Athenians:

Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way…the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues.

So intimidated were the Athenians that the assembly even voted unanimously to abolish most of its own powers and adopt a new oligarchic constitution.

The democratic spirit was still strong with the Athenians and democracy was eventually reinstated.

But in 405 BC the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War against their arch enemies in Sparta. The Spartans abolished democracy and instituted The Rule of the Thirty Tyrants which soon developed into a bloody dictatorship. As many as 1,500 Athenian citizens were killed in the anti-democratic purge, others were banished or fled. The leader of the Thirty was Critias. He made it perfectly clear why he was unleashing death squads on those who defiantly insisted that the Periclean values of egalitarian and deliberative democracy prevail. In a brutally honest speech Critias laid down the law:

It is inevitable that those who are changing the government here to an oligarchy should have most numerous enemies…because the common folk have been bred and reared in a condition of freedom for the longest time…And if we find anyone opposed to the oligarchy, so far as we have the power we put him out of the way.

Amazingly the Athenian democracy was once again reinstated when the Tyrants were defeated. But the experience of democratic breakdown and violence made the Athenians suspicious in the protection of their democracy. And so they turned on their most prolific practitioner of parrhesia: Socrates. For decades he had subjected leading Athenians to humiliating intellectual stripteases with no apparent consequences. But he was also critical of democracy, had close relations with some of the leaders of the coups – including Critias – and seemed to proselytize his own religion. In this environment, Socrates was seen as a corrosive influence jeopardizing the democracy and the values that sustained it. Athenian free speech had reached its limits.

The Death of Socrates (1787), by Jacques-Louis David

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Why should we care what happened in the distant past in a society radically different from ours?

The Athenian coups serve as history’s first confirmation of the old saying that free speech is the first victim of tyranny. Or in the much later words of Benjamin Franklin: “Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation, must begin by subduing the Freeness of Speech”. Because that’s just what happened. It was under democracy that equal and uninhibited speech flourished in Athens. As soon as democracy was subverted so too was free and equal speech. In fact, it was by subduing free speech that both the Four Hundred and the Thirty Tyrants took over power and sought to keep it.

The coups also show how free speech is the antithesis of violence. When everyone accepts that communal decision-making is taken by democratic means after public debate differences can be settled peacefully. But when large or powerful segments of society abandon this principle violence is never far away.

But the Athenian democracy’s conviction of Socrates also shows the dangers of overreacting to threats against democracy. Laws against fake news, populism and hate speech are being adopted in defense of democracy. But their effects may well be much more corrosive than the ills they are designed to target.

For people living in consolidated democracies, the idea that free speech might be replaced with censorship or violence seems fanciful. But it is worth remembering that some 2500 years separate us from the Athenian democracy. In that period the ability for human beings to speak their mind without fear or repression has very much been the exception, not the rule. Unless we rediscover why free speech really matters, the rule may be back with a vengeance.


Jacob Mchangama writes and narrates the podcast “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech”. He is also the founder and director of Justitia, a civil liberties think tank in Copenhagen. He has written and commented extensively on free speech and human rights including in Washington Post, NY Review of Books, Wall Street Journal Europe and The Economist. 

Filed under: Free Speech, History, Top Stories


Jacob Mchangama is the founder and director of Justitia, a civil liberties think tank in Copenhagen. He has written and commented extensively on free speech and human rights including in Washington Post, NY Review of Books, Wall Street Journal Europe and The Economist.


  1. Carl Sageman says

    And what about propaganda? Or, called by another name, “fake news”. Do we allow unfettered lies to propagate?

    James Damore and his memo. What did expert assessment say? Why was there complete contradiction between expert assessment and mainstream media?

    Catherine Deneuve was a rape pologist? That did the media rounds too. There is a list a mile long of wide spread fake news across the mainstream media. I recognise it’s linked to one particular ideology that everyone seems to fear.

    Doesn’t unfettered propaganda have an impact on democracy? Should feeedom of speech be totally unrestricted? Lies have no consequence? What about libel and slander? Don’t they impinge on free speech because there’s a fear to lie about someone?

    I mostly support free speech. I even support tolerance of hate speech )only because the term is so vague, some ideologies have set the bar extremely low). However, unfettered speech I don’t agree with – which is why I support libel and slander. If that takes down most of the world’s free press, so be it. A propagandist media (like we have today) does significant harm. I expect honesty and balance from the media. I rarely see it.

  2. Eleni says

    If most of world’s free press goes down, how can we assure that the remaining aren’t propagandist media?

  3. Anon from Sydney says

    well-written and interesting. Canvassing the decline of free speech since 2003 (and before, I’d argue since the 1980s) is not complete without covering the outsourcing of censorship by Western governments. For example: the Australian government has pursued a policy of multiculturalism since the 1990s to enable its strategic goal of mass migration at rates too fast for natural social cohesion. Multiculturalism therefore could not be criticised. Any negative comments about multiculturalism had to be censored and the policy had to be promoted. As a Western government they could not be seen to be censoring criticism of a government policy – so they outsourced censorship and propaganda. Groups were set up and were given government grants to promote multiculturalism: eg: Multiculturalism NSW. Local councils were given funding to have multicultural morning teas, and money was on the table for all sorts of cultural and social projects as long as they presented multiculturalism in a positive light.

    Anybody asking questions about the limits of multiculturalism or drawing attention to examples of clashes between migrant cultures and mainstream or other cultures was smeared as a racist. They would lose their job, their social standing and would receive no platform for their ideas.

    That has lasted for four decades now. The result is massive and extended migration rates, the highest since World War 2, increasing the population from 14.7 million in 1980 to 25 million in 2018. Residents of Sydney and Melbourne now find life unbearable with high-rises everywhere, no parking, and a massive property price boom that has left the children of people born in Australia with no ability to buy a house near their parents and relatives. The Government got what it wanted: massive population growth. The citizens got short-changed – their infrastructure is at breaking point, the hospitals are compromised, the schools are overflowing, the roads are clogged and it is all through migration. And the policy of multiculturalism has brought some success and some failures. The raggedy edges are on display in Melbourne with the Apex gang of Somali and South Sudanese migrants running rampage in the streets or in Sydney with an advanced Islamist colonisation opening mosques and schools that reject the concept of democratic law and advocate the global rule of Sharia.

  4. Dear Mr Mchangama,

    Finally, finally, someone in this madness has the courage to look at history, and through ancient texts and long forgotten speeches, to reminds us that the nature of men and women has remained so hopelessly similar. I so wished Pericles’ Democracy was taught, but how not to see Cicero’s great arguments against it?

    They stumbled upon the same traps, fell for the same expedients, had them same warnings of impeding doom, really tried their best to make amend, while their empire faltered, and disappeared. Athens didn’t die, but Greece was lost. Alexandria was a promise, but she didn’t survive her founder, Rome seemed to have learned from both, refused to impose Latin, roman customs and laws, while crushing mercilessly all attempts of dissent. It disappeared anyway.

    It’s a reason for hope, not for despair. Cultures die, just like humans, and the harder we fight the inevitable, the stronger we fall. Everyone will laugh at the cliché, ‘what a stupid thing to say, conventional wisdom has struck again. Who brought this guy?’. But deep down, who would claim western aristocracy wasn’t perceived as the best possible system before it fell? Even Tocqueville had a soft spot, while acknowledging the inevitable of American Democracy.

    France didn’t die, but it wasn’t the same France. England kept her kings and Queens, but none had anything in common with Elizabeth I. Germany isn’t Prussia, but still has her college sweetheart in the East.

    Cultures die, because there’s no such thing as The Best System. We all know this. We all feel it. Our parents are not us, but we still love them while wanting very little of their old world. What woman in her right mind would like to back to the 60s? Alas, we’d give anything for 5 more minutes with them, the end comes to soon, we haven’t talked enough, shared enough. 5 more minutes, please, is all I need.

    Hence, when the inevitable is near, we compromise. Pick two random citizens and ask. Expedient and principles will be radically opposed. There’s no way on earth to make a popular decision, whichever comes first, any of us will be entitled to go at our neighbour’s throat. Are we doomed?

    At the top of your twitter TL, there’s a disturbing comment about your being mixed race. I’ll use my free speech card to say this comment is historically accurate, even if most, at first, will find this insulting.

    It is historically accurate because the Greeks thought they were the only one endowed with the principles of democracy. So when those principles faltered on their own, they found better fortunes in Macedonia. They weren’t identical, but that’s where they flourished. When Alexander died, they moved back to Rome, and when the Eastern Empire fell, the renaissance started, and here we are, the barbarians sitting on top of the world, the same ones that Rome fought without mercy.

    Who would have thought that a grumpy bearded German would look down on a Greek, or a Roman before bailing him out? And I’m not as schematic as many would like to see.

    My point is, it is precisely because you are mixed race that your view point matters. It’s unjust and racist. I have no doubt you worked as hard as everybody else, and this is very unfortunate. But power has structured itself around race nonetheless. That is our world. The tragedy is that this misses the point of history: all great ideas were a love story between a migrant looking for a home and a local. All the while preserving historical and cultural continuity, not erasing it. An often overlooked requirement, which Alexander figured way too late.

    Hence free speech. But not free speech to go back the way things were. There is no going back.

    Europe as designed less than 20 years ago isn’t coming back, and won’t survive Brexit. Not enough cash. Mundane, but efficient, and historically accurate. There’s simply not enough money to pay for the slackers in the South.

    Facebook and Twitter killed free speech, simply because we’ve lost the right to ignore speech. What do we think ‘Speaker’s corner’ in London was for? Precisely to ignore rants until that speech mattered. Now it seems everyone is a specialist in constitutional law. Or an historian for that matter (yes, that’s me)

    Common decency won’t come back any time soon either. I mean, the US president paid a porn star to have sex while watching Shark Week, and Theresa May asks for backdoors on all of our phones. One of those fact is absolutely hilarious, and the other is downright outrageous. Which one, I don’t even know anymore.

    Common sense is brain dead as well, I’m not sure for how long. Girls and Boys in the US and Canada are offered hormone treatment at the age of 11, sex surgery, and doctors can keep their licence. Since when ‘why not waiting a little until you’re sure what you’re doing?’ has become an oppression?

    So, it’s over. 5 minutes more is all we can get. Wait another one and we loose everything.

    I certainly wish you good luck in this endeavour of yours, Free Speech through the prism of Athens, but you shouldn’t look too far back. If history tells us anything is that old solutions to revive dying ideas were tested.

    I think we should do like Socrates. Not look for definitions, but really dive into one down-to-earth, practical problem and really tear it to pieces. I’m not wishing you his fate, although these days, I would advise courageous caution.

  5. Getting embroiled in arguing for the right to challenge the establishment can cause us to lose sight of what we’re actually fighting for. It’s safer, but it is masturbatory. If the suppositions of the antiracist, anti-patriarchal establishment were objectively true, then I for one would put all my weight behind the very speech codes that Quillette writers/readers decry as tearing society apart.

    But those suppositions stand on loose soil, to put it as gently as possible.

    It is not enough to argue for heterodoxy and expect others to do the hard work.

    If we are courageous and have a clearheaded view on the human condition, we can assert our right to free speech by exercising it.

    Just sayin’.

    PS, if anybody is at Rutgers University, feel free to contact me.

    • If it weren’t so obvious, I’d call it out from the profile picture. I think that’s probably the quality of the grammar, the precision of the vocabulary, the (very weak) philosophical references, that gave it away.

      You just couldn’t help show you were smart, could you? 🙂

      White supremacists are like golden retrievers chasing a laser pointer. Once they have a target, only the reptilian part of the brain is running, and they can’t string a proper sentence anymore. Plato’s cave becomes a pub, so it’s time to go to the water hole. Mind you, the far-righters are populists, they enjoy simple things. Like chandeliers at night, Karaoke with WWII German songs, a healthy jogging behind people of colour. Stuff that keeps you in shape, with friends. Ready for combat.

      The PoMos, on the other hand, never miss an opportunity to become aristocrats. It’s like a second nature. Their secret hero is Beria. Luxury, excess, behind close doors. With all the revenge that envy and self inflicted privation can bring. I always thought the right place for them was in a monastery, with a backdoor to a semi-detached brothel.

      “Ablate all racial egoism lest people think your universalist moral position is mere subterfuge.”

      Darling, there are too many words in this sentence. Are you seriously going to tell us David Duke delves into the ethics of egoism, or reads Ayn Rand before going to bed? Ablate you too btw.

      I suspect you’re probably either on the PoMo troll list, or some recent Quillette opponents bitterly unhappy at the website audience. I can’t imagine the kick-off meetings ‘Let’s build a white supremacist web site and smear those damn liberals who are stealing our customers’. I’m not surprised you pulled this off though. PoMos can convincingly write on anything.

      Must have been a lot of fun.

  6. Michael says

    The problem is, Athens never actually had the majority running things. “Democratic” Athens at its height was run by perhaps a fourth of the population. Women were entirely excluded of course, along with all foreign residents (there existed virtually no way for them to become citizens) and menials (i.e. common laborers). Not to mention slaves, naturally, who were often a majority. This does not mean Athenian democracy had no merits, but these features are important to keep in mind.

  7. “When everyone accepts that communal decision-making is taken by democratic means after public debate differences can be settled peacefully.”

    Can we tell when “everyone” is accepting of “communal decision-making” via debate and speech?
    What happens to these “differences” when they are not settled peacefully with debate and speech? What are there other options?

    “But when large or powerful segments of society abandon this principle violence is never far away.”

    Can “we” actually tell when large or powerful segments of society abandon this principle?
    Can we tell if there is a split in views between a large segment and a powerful segment?
    What happens if, through whatever process, one large segment and another segment of the powerful diverge on what “debate” alone can settle?

  8. Pingback: “Free Speech Has Become Tribal” — Freedom Today Journal

  9. Korakys says

    Free speech reigned in democratic Athens, then after losing their democracy twice they decided against free speech, convicting anti-democratic sympathiser Socrates. That done their democracy survived until the whole of Greece came under the dominion of the unstoppable Macedon.

    From this anecdote I conclude that free speech is the enemy of democracy. As an example you have chosen poorly.

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