Managing Expectations for Stranger Things 4

It’s been three long years since we last saw Eleven leaving Hawkins with the Byers family, but story-wise it been six short months. Which means these 14-15 year old kids are now being played by 16-19 year old actors with the half the conviction of their younger selves. I miss them when they were 12-13. Stranger Things 1 and 2 are masterpieces of modern TV and will only get better with age. Stranger Things 3 is something else, and already aging abysmally. As the kids began maturing, the series itself became less mature, and everyone wants to know if the new tone will continue for the rest of the series. But before getting to Stranger Things 4, let’s refresh what happened in that third season and see what was going on.

You can read all the ugly details here, but basically in Stranger Things 3, the Duffers turned into Joel Schumacher. After the creepy Batman (1989) and even weirder (and better) Batman Returns (1992), Warner Brothers got cold feet, got rid of Tim Burton, and hired Schumacher to dumb things down for kids. The result — that we can never erase from our minds — was Batman Forever (1995). The only thing different about Stranger Things 3 is that Netflix didn’t hire new writers or directors. The Duffers dumbed themselves down on their own initiative. The Jim Hopper of Stranger Things 1 and 2 is one of the best TV characters of all time; the Jim Hopper of Stranger Things 3 is as cringeworthy as Jim Carrey’s Riddler. Sidekick Erica is more annoying than Robin. Everything is campy; plots are lazy; dialogue is hollow. Threats don’t feel severe, and we’re supposed to laugh at every other absurdity.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stranger Things 3 is literally as bad as Batman Forever, because it’s not. It has an impressive finale, and even some good parts in the preceding seven episodes. But as analogies go, the Batman franchise suffices, and here’s another: Mad Max. Again we have a terrific first film, Mad Max (1979), a bleakly dystopian revenge thriller, followed by the even more excellent Road Warrior (1981), one of the best (if not the best) post-apocalyptic films of all time. Then came the pile of manure called Max Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), full of cheap laughs and a light tone that was wholly out of line.

Perhaps the most obvious analogy is Star Wars, though I hesitate to use it since I’ve never been much a fan. But even I appreciate The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which is better than A New Hope (1977) according to most fans. Return of the Jedi (1985), on the other hand, was as bad as Empire was good — silliness, ewoks, and more silliness. Jedi did however have a good first act (Jabba the Hut), just as Stranger Things 3 had an amazing final act. Neither was a failure but each was heavily marred.

Or how about Indiana Jones? While most would say Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is the best of the trilogy, I say Temple of Doom (1984). You can make a case for either, just as you can for Stranger Things 1 or 2. But you certainly cannot make a case for The Last Crusade (1989) — which yet again succumbs to a lot of humor that is 100% not funny, and tries too hard to have fun instead of doing right by the viewer.

For many artists the pattern is an inescapable snare. Make something good, then take it to next level with darker and stronger material. Then do just the opposite, and piss into the wind. And sometimes keep pissing. In the case of Batman and Indiana Jones, there was a fourth film that was even sillier than the third. Batman & Robin was not only the worst Batman film, but one of the worst films ever made; and the less said about Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the better. This pattern puts the Duffers on the spot. Was Stranger Things 3 a one-off blunder, or would it set the tone for the rest of the series?

I’ll throw down a fiat: Stranger Things 4 is no Batman & Robin or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The Duffers have taken certain criticisms to heart. I can only imagine how embarrassed they must be over their cartooning of Jim Hopper. (Seriously, how could they have thought any of that season-3 shit was funny as they were shooting it? And what did poor David Harbour and the rest of the cast think?) In the end, they are not Joel Schumacher or Stephen Spielberg. They are hard-core horror fans, and season 4 ups the horror ante with a vengeance. Come this May and July, Stranger Things 4 will be pronounced an improvement over the third season.

And yet. They didn’t escape the snare entirely. If Stranger Things 4 improves on the third season, it still retains some of its comedy baggage. The California storyline in particular. So keep your expectations modest.

Silmarillion Exam Made by Me in Junior-High School

I dug this out of storage: an exam I made for The Silmarillion when I was in 8th grade (1982). Clearly written by a Tolkien-obsessed teen. Now digitalized, for the first time in 40 years.

A. Match each Vala with his/her specialty, from the letter pool below

1. Manwe ___
2. Este ___
3. Yavanna ___
4. Orome ___
5. Aule ___
6. Vaire ___
7. Tulkas ___
8. Nessa ___
9. Ulmo ___
10. Vana ___
11. Namo ___
12. Nienna ___
13. Irmo ___
14. Varda ___

a. Lady of the Stars
b. The Fleetfooted
c. Lord of Arda and the Winds
d. Lord of Waters
e. The Weaver
f. Master of Visions and Dreams
g. Lady of Pity and Mourning
h. Lord of the Substance of Arda
i. The Everyoung
j. Rest
k. The Greatest in Strength
l. Giver of Fruits
m. Keeper of the Houses of the Dead
n. The Hunter

B. Fill in the blank

1. The two greatest Valar. _________
2. The Maia who married an elf. _________
3. The Vala who was the first victim of evil. _________
4. An evil Maia who repented after the Great Battle. _________
5. The one Vala who came frequently to Middle-Earth. _________
6. The Vala who created the dwarves. _________
7. The Vala who created the Two Trees. _________
8-10. The Two Lamps of the Valar were:
(8) wrought by _________,
(9) filled with light by _________,
(10) and hallowed by _________.

C. Who am I?

1. I am an Elven King of the Teleri who rules in Beleriand. _________
2. I am Lord of Brethil. With Beleg I led the force defeating the orcs ravaging West Beleriand after the fall of Tol Sirion. _________
3. I am the eldest and most renowned of the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves. _________
4. I was High King of the Noldor, and friendly with the sons of Feanor. _________
5. Because of Morgoth’s curse on my father and his descendants, I killed my friend, had my secret refuge betrayed, and married my sister who killed herself. _________
6. I am an Elven King of the Teleri who rules in the Anduin Vales. _________
7. I saved the life of Finrod, who vowed allegiance to my house, and I was one of the thirteen outlaws in Dorthonian. _________
8. I created the Silmarils and the Palantiri. _________
9. I am a spirit of evil taking the form of a huge spider. _________
10. I am Lord of Dor-lomin. During my reign, the Edain reached their greatest glory in Beleriand. _________
11. After I received the Nauglamir/Silmaril from my parents, I was attacked by the sons of Feanor; I killed Celegorm, Curufin, and Caranthir. _________
12. I was High King of the Noldor, and friendly with the sons of Finarfin. _________
13. I am an Elven King of the Teleri who rules on the shores of Aman. _________
14. After dwelling for years as an outlaw in caves, I came to Gondolin with special tokens. Later I married an elven princess. _________
15. I’m a man who married an elf and died twice. _________
16. I led in the swearing of the Oath (to take back the Silmarilli at all costs), and later formed the Union which was betrayed by Easterlings. _________
17. I am known as the Dark Elf and learned great craft skills from dwarven smiths. _________
18. I am the High King of the Elves, and before that was leader of my kindred, the Vanyar. _________
19. I reluctantly joined the revolt of the Noldor, and was the first of the Eldar to discover men. _________
20. I was the greatest winged dragon of the First Age, killed by Earendil. _________

D. Places (Kingdoms, Cities, Fortresses)

1. The main city of the elves, built on the hill of Tuna in Valinor.

a. Alqualonde
b. Tirion

2. The southern haven of the Falas, at the mouth of the River Nenning.

a. Brithombar
b. Eglarest

3. The fortress built by Finrod, who later died in its dungeons when held by Sauron.

a. Nargothrond
b. Minas Tirith

4. The city in Valinor where most of the Valar dwelt.

a. Valimar
b. Taniquetil

5. The great underground fortress of Melkor, destroyed in the Battle of the Powers.

a. Angband
b. Utumno

6. Dwarf city involved in the sacking of Menegroth.

a. Belegost
b. Nogrod

7. The city built by Turgon, who left behind artifacts there so that he would recognize the one who came to warn him of peril.

a. Vinyamar
b. Gondolin

8. The underground halls of Thingol built in a rocky hill by the dwarves.

a. Menegroth
b. Doriath

9. The great ravine (the only gap) through which the light of the Two Trees shone.

a. Calicyria
b. Pelori

10. Region of the First House of the Edain, destroyed after the 4th War, later becoming a refuge for the 13 outlaws.

a. Ladros
b. Ard-Galen

E. Match each Elven group from the letter pool below

1. Eldar ___
2. Laiquendi ___
3. Falmari ___
4. Avari ___
5. Sindar ___
6. Vanyar ___
7. Nandor ___
8. Noldor ___

a. the unwilling elves who refused the Great Journey
b. the elves of the Great Journey
c. the “fair elves”; masters of poetry and song; all went to Valinor
d. the “deep elves”; masters of lore, warfare, and crafts; all went to Valinor
e. the “wood elves”; they left the Journey east of the Misty Mountains
f. the “green elves”; they entered Beleriand and dwelt in Ossiriand
g. the “grey elves”; they left the Journey and stayed in Beleriand; the wisest of the elves who did not go to Valinor
h. the “sea elves”; masters of music and shipbuilding; they lived on the shores of Valinor

F. Chronology: Check the event which came first


___ The Great Journey of the Elves (to Valinor) begins
___ The Seven Fathers of the Dwarves awaken


___ Turgon and Finrod found their hidden cities
___ Thingol and Cirdan found their kingdoms


___ The Two Trees are poisoned
___ The Silmarils are stolen by Melkor


___ The first breeding of the orcs
___ Orome discovers the elves


___ The Girdle of Melian is raised
___ Beginning of the count of years


___ The Quest for the Silmaril
___ Men appear from the East


___ Morgoth cast into the Void
___ Silmaril of Elwing placed in the sky


___ Fingolfin slain
___ The Siege of Angband ends


___ The Moon rises for the first time
___ The Sun rises for the first time


___ The Kinslaying at Alqualonde
___ The Prophecy of the North is issued

G. Match each battle with its description, from the letter pool below

1. Dagor Aglareb: “The Glorious Battle” ___
2. Battle of Tumhalad ___
3. Battle of the Powers: “The War of the Gods” ___
4. Dagor-Nuin-Giliath: “Battle Under the Stars” ___
5. The Great Battle: “The War of Wrath” ___
6. Dagor Bragollach: “Battle of Sudden Flame” ___
7. Dagor Region ___
8. Nirnaeth Arnoediad: “Tears Unnumbered” ___

a. 1st War of Beleriand: Morgoth vs. the Sindar, Laiquendi, and dwarves from the Blue Mountains
b. 2nd War of Beleriand: Morgoth vs. the Noldor; Morgoth attempts to prevent the Noldor from establishing any holds in Middle-Earth
c. 3rd War of Beleriand: Morgoth vs. the Noldor; commenced the Siege of Angband
d. 4th War of Beleriand: Morgoth vs. the Noldor & the Edain; First House of the Edain shattered
e. 5th War of Beleriand: Morgoth vs. the Noldor & the Edain; the Union of Maedhros is shattered, the sons of Fëanor are scattered away from Himring, and the people of Hithlum destroyed; orcs raze all of Beleriand (except Doriath) and sack the Falas
f. Morgoth vs. the Exiles; the sacking of Nargothrond; the Haladin are shattered
g. Melkor vs. the Host of Valinor; the Valar attempt to protect the newly awakened peoples from Melkor’s evil
h. Conflict ending the First Age; Beleriand is destroyed

H. Multiple Choice

1. Fingon: Gil-galad :: Turgon:

a. Elrond
b. Eol
c. Finrod

2. Which was not a place seen by Turin?

a. Nargothrond
b. Gondolin
c. Amon Rudh
d. Menegroth
e. Hithlum

3. Which was not a place seen by Tuor?

a. Nargothrond
b. Gondolin
c. Havens of Sirion
d. Nevrast
e. Hithlum

4. Maedhros: Ulfang :: Turgon:

a. Aredhel
b. Maeglin
c. Idril

5. Which item(s) is (are) associated with Nargothrond?

a. A helm, mail, and sword
b. The Nauglamir
c. One of the Silmarils

6. Who was killed during the attack on Sirion in an attempt to recover a Silmaril?

a. Amras
b. Curufin
c. Maglor

7. The only son of Feanor who tried relinquishing his claim to the Silmarils was also the only son whose end is a mystery. He is:

a. Maedhros
b. Maglor
c. Amrod
d. Amras

8. Finwe: Tuna :: Ingwe:

a. Pelori
b. Valimar
c. Taniquetil

9. Who ruled Nargothrond during the time when the kingdom abandoned its policy of secrecy and fought Morgoth openly?

a. Finrod
b. Celegorm and Curufin
c. Orodreth

10. What happened to flesh that touched the Silmarils?

a. The flesh withered
b. The flesh became transparent
c. The flesh cracked and bled

11-13. Choose between (a) Celegorm, (b) Curufin, and (c) Caranthir.

11. The quickest to anger of Feanor’s sons; prone to misunderstandings. ___

12. The greatest wood-crafter of the First Age. ___

13. The greatest smith of the First Age (besides Feanor). ___

14. Morgoth’s most powerful servants were:

a. balrogs
b. spiders
c. orcs

15. How many of the following five are “half-elven”? Elrond, Elros, Elwing, Earendil, Dior.

a. 1
b. 2
c. 3
d. 4
e. 5

16. Who challenged Morgoth to single combat and perished because of it?

a. Feanor
b. Fingolfin
c. Finarfin
d. a & b
e. b & c

17. Which woman did not have an unusual type of marriage?

a. Galadriel
b. Nienor
c. Idril

18. Who was not a ruler of Tirion?

a. Finwe
b. Fingolfin
c. Finarfin

19. Hurin and Huor descend from which Houses of the Edain?

a. 1st and 2nd
b. 2nd and 3rd
c. 1st and 3rd

20. After the Two Trees perished, their light was seen again only through:

a. The Silmarils
b. The Moon
c. The Lamps

21-23. Choose between (a) Dor-lomin, (b) Lammoth, (c) Arvernien, (d) Dorthonian, and (e) Brethil.

21. Abode of the 1st House of the Edain. ___

22. Abode of the 2nd House of the Edain. ___

23. Abode of the 3rd House of the Edain. ___

24. Hurin and Huor both married into which House of the Edain?

a. 1st
b. 2nd
c. 3rd

25. The slaying of Glaurung was done by:

a. Beleg
b, Earendil
c. Turambar

26. Which two elves were killed by Gothmog, Lord of the Balrogs?

a. Finwe + Feanor
b. Feanor + Fingolfin
c. Feanor + Fingon
d. Fingon + Turgon
e. Turgon + Hurin

27. Which elf never ruled over a particular domain?

a. Feanor
b. Fingolfin
c. Finarfin
d. Fingon
e. Turgon
f. Gil-galad

28. Which elf was not a High King of the Noldor?

a. Feanor
b. Fingolfin
c. Finarfin
d. Fingon
e. Turgon
f. Gil-galad

29. Which was not a name for Turin?

a. Neithan
b. Faelivrin
c. Gorthol
d. Agarwaen
e. Adanedhel
f. Mormegil
g. Turambar

30. Melkor was finally destroyed at the end of the First Age.

a. True
b. False

I. Essay

The Silmarils were the greatest works of craft ever produced by the Children of Iluvatar. Explain how these gems wrought the Doom of the Noldor foretold by Mandos. Include the causes and effects of the Silmaril gems on the lives of elves, men, and dwarves throughout the First Age.



A. Match each Vala with his/her specialty

1. c
2. j
3. l
4. n
5. h
6. e
7. k
8. b
9. d
10. i
11. m
12. g
13. f
14. a

B. Fill in the blank

1. Manwe & Varda
2. Melian
3. Melkor
4. Sauron
5. Orome
6. Aule
7. Yavanna
8. Aule
9. Varda
10. Manwe

C. Who am I?

1. Elwe
2. Halmir
3. Durin I
4. Fingon
5. Turin
6. Lenwe
7. Barahir
8. Feanor
9. Ungoliant
10. Hador
11. Dior
12. Turgon
13. Olwe
14. Tuor
15. Beren
16. Maedhros
17. Eol
18. Ingwe
19. Finrod
20. Ancalagon

D. Places

1. b
2. b
3. b
4. a
5. b
6. b
7. a
8. a
9. a
10. a

E. The Elves

1. b
2. f
3. h
4. a
5. g
6. c
7. e
8. d

F. Chronology

1. 2
2. 2
3. 1
4. 1
5. 1
6. 2
7. 1
8. 2
9. 1
10. 1

G. Battles

1. c
2. f
3. g
4. b
5. h
6. d
7. a
8. e

H. Multiple Choice

1. a
2. b
3. a
4. b
5. b
6. a
7. b
8. c
9. c
10. a
11. c
12. a
13. b
14. a
15. d
16. b
17. a
18. b
19. b
20. a
21. d
22. e
23. a
24. a
25. c
26. c
27. a
28. c
29. b
30. b

I. Essay (30 points)

Each question is worth one point, except for the 30-point essay, for a total of 140 points.

The Batman Films Ranked

The Batman franchise isn’t what you’d necessarily expect. It’s not as if the Nolan films are all better than the Burton films, with the directors falling neatly into tiers. Here are my rankings. Not included are the Justice League medley (which I refuse to watch) and the Lego movie.

The Dark Knight - Joker Crashes The Wayne Party (HD) - YouTube
1. The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan, 2008. 5 stars. The Godfather of Batman films, and almost as epic and tragic. It uses Batman as an icon to show how heroes escalate terror in the name of fighting it. The Joker and Two-Face are born out of perverse emulation for the hero, and of course the Joker steals the show — putting a smile on people with his knives, blowing up hospitals and ferry boats, and burning mountains of money he goes to the trouble of robbing from Gotham’s banks. By the end it’s clear that Batman is more a problem than a solution — “a freak like me”, taunts the Joker — and he willingly takes the fall for Harvey Dent, turning Gotham against him. It set a mighty high bar.

New The Batman Trailer Is Full Of New Bat-Footage
2. The Batman. Matt Reeves, 2022. 4 ½ stars. This is Batman meets Se7en, with the serial-killing Riddler we deserve after Jim Carrey’s slaughter-job in the ’90s. I was a guaranteed sucker for this one. The cinematography is stunning (the best in any Batman film) and the score genius (the best music in any Batman film), and the ugly clandestine world of payoffs, informants and rank corruption is just what a superhero film needs to be taken seriously for a change, especially after the absurdity of Ben Afleck. No doubt this film is setting us up for even more — and I am dying to see what kind of Joker Reeves will give us.

In a real world full of darkness, the wicked camp of Batman Returns is a safe cocoon | CBC Arts
3. Batman Returns. Tim Burton, 1992. 4 ½ stars. Daring for its day, and controversial enough to give Tim Burton the axe, Batman Returns dialed up the gothic weirdness by a factor of five, giving us a Penguin who lives in a sewer and schemes to dump kids into toxic waste. Some have called the film an outright assault on kids, but it’s really about broken adults searching for peace and acceptance. Burton painted a canvas of such hurt and pain — going well beyond what he did in his ’89 film — that it was too much for some people. It’s also what made it good and I still love it. Another bonus: Michelle Pfeiffer is the best Catwoman of all time.

Batman Begins - The Will to Act (Training Scene HD) - YouTube4. Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan, 2005. 4 ½ stars. There is no better origin story. Bruce Wayne spends the first half of the movie imprisoned, and then undergoing a brutal program under the tutelage of Ra’s Al-Ghul. It’s like he’s training to be a ninja — it’s that grueling — a compelling account of how Batman became such a powerhouse fighter without any innate abilities. When he finally becomes Batman, Scarecrow is awaiting him in Gotham (played with relish by Cillian Murphy), making a perfect first villain to overcome, as Scarecrow is all about fear — about which Bruce Wayne still has much to overcome.

Is this the best Batman movie ever made? - Little White Lies
5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Eric Radomski & Bruce Timm, 1993. 4 stars. Surprisingly moving for an animated film, it examines how demoralizing Batman’s existence is around a tense mystery plot. It starts in romance blossoming out of a graveyard conversation: Bruce Wayne falls in love with Andrea Beaumont, who soon breaks his heart and later becomes the mob-murdering Phantasm, succumbing to her dark side without reservation. Joker is behind the death of both their parents, and Mark Hamill’s voice for Joker is pretty damn good (considering, after all, it’s Mark Hamill).

Mezco Toyz on Twitter: "Batman 1989 thirty years later – How Jack Nicholson's casting as the Joker elevated the superhero film genre -" / Twitter6. Batman. Tim Burton, 1989. 3 ½ stars. It hasn’t aged very well, but in the ’80s this was a dark and groundbreaking effort. And while Heath Ledger’s Joker makes Nicholson’s look campy, there’s still a lot that’s compelling in Burton’s weirdness — a style that he would perfect in his sequel, Batman Returns. This was the film that showed me the potential in superhero films. In the 80s all I knew was Christopher Reeve and Superman. Measured against that cheese, Tim Burton’s Batman was a stunning work of art.

The Dark Knight Rises Voted Best Film Of The Decade - LADbible
7. The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan, 3 ½ stars. Believe me, I really wanted to like it more, but it’s overstuffed and under-inspired. Nolan just didn’t have the mojo he had in the first two films. Batman Begins looked at the hero’s origins by focusing on the politics of fear; The Dark Knight destroyed our hope through nihilism and chaos. This films then took on the theme of pain, but not nearly as profoundly as the other two. As for Bane, he’s not an autonomous villain like Ra’s al Ghul and Joker (he’s the former’s henchman), which reduces him in a major way. Still, this is a good effort by the standards of most superhero films.

The Daily Stream: Batman (1966) Is Comic Book Movie Camp At Its Finest
8. Batman. Leslie Martinson, 1966. 2 stars. Some say the silliness of this classic is part of its charm. They can keep telling themselves that. Though the deadpan humor is admittedly amusing at times, in its cheesy way, which keeps it above the ultra-offenders. I’d watch this over any of the three entries below, which is saying a lot about how bad they are.

Batman Forever' Extended Cut: Will Darker Version Get Release? - Variety
9. Batman Forever. Joel Schumacher, 1 ½ stars. Tim Burton’s films were deemed too weird and unsettling, and Batman Returns crossed quite a few lines. So they hired Schumacher to dumb things down for kids. He introduced Robin — who is always the kiss of death in Batman — and even worse, Jim Carrey as the Riddler, who utterly dominates this POS of a film. It’s impossible to erase Carrey-Riddler from your mind once you’ve seen Batman Forever, and I still resent it. Sad thing is, Val Kilmer would have made a good Batman, and Tommy Lee Jones a good Two-Face, if they’d been given decent material to work with.

The Batman Vs. Superman Easter Egg You Missed In I Am Legend
10. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Zach Snyder, 2016. 1 star. As bad as Batman Forever is, I’d suffer through it again before a repeat of this travesty. It’s basically King Kong vs. Godzilla: boring, boring, and more boring. Though come to think of it, maybe I would choose this one; at least it would put me to sleep. As for Ben Afleck, he’s the absolute worst Batman ever — even worse than George Clooney, below.

Poison Ivy Encounter - YouTube
11. Batman & Robin. Joel Schumacher, 1997. 0 stars. What can I say that hasn’t been? Not only is this the worst Batman film ever made, it’s one of the worst films period ever made. After the trash of Batman Forever, Schumacher took trash to the 20th power, and made the most risible piece of cinema imaginable. I reserve a zero-star rating for films that haven’t a shred of redeeming moments in them, and trust me, if you haven’t seen it (don’t!), Batman & Robin is one such stinking behemoth.

Free Speech Reading List

Someone requested that I make this list — the best books written about free speech. It’s a short list, but here they are. There are other good books I’ve read on the subject, but these are the ones whose arguments are so unassailable I would make them required reading.

It’s noteworthy that each author addresses free speech in its legal sense and in its broader cultural sense. From different angles they conclude similarly: that powerful private-sector actors, while obviously not subject to governmental restraints, should nonetheless respect the free speech rights of others over whom they exercise power. This is especially true of private universities, internet service providers, search engines, and social media platforms. Only in unusual circumstances should they exercise their “censorship” rights as private entities. In the first book, this is framed in the context of the dangers of societal conformity; in the second book, scientific progress; in the third, hate speech problems; and in the fourth, academic integrity.

1. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Jacob Mchangama, 2022. Still hot of the press as I write this, Mchangama’s book is required reading on the subject — a history of the world seen through the lens of free expression. I’m surprised no one thought to write a book like this before. Even free-speech gurus will learn much from it; I sure did. Its thesis is twofold, first that free speech almost always sets in motion a process of entropy — even its most passionate defenders want exceptions made (based on what offends them), while others ultimately can’t resist the censoring impulse. Second, that free speech culture is as important as the legal apparatus of free speech — perhaps even more so. Without the former, the latter is doomed to dissolve; the abundant examples of history make this clear. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and George Orwell warned about society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and that unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without an official ban. This is history as it should be written, in a clear arresting framework. At every point you want to keep going, to see how societies never learn their lesson. Full review in three parts: one, two, three.

2. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (expanded edition 2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were retreating from their most important values, and they haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that certain religions promote violence more than others may be hurtful to the devout, but it’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does; and it’s a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. Full review here.

3. Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship. Nadine Strossen, 2018. No one is better equipped to write about hate speech than this former president of the ACLU. Her most important argument is that hate speech laws punish those who are simply expressing unwelcome or dissenting opinions. Examples abound: In South Africa the ANC tried to criminalize someone who said that colonialism produced positive effects as well as negative ones. In Azerbaijan a court sentenced a man to prison for “inciting religious hatred”, because he owned books by the exiled Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen (it’s true that Gülen isn’t a “moderate” as many claim; he’s an Islamic supremacist; still, one should not be criminalized for reading or owning his literature). In Singapore a 16-year old was sentenced to prison for “wounding religious feelings” when he took swipes at Christianity (the religion of Singapore’s first prime minister). In Denmark a man was convicted for posting on Facebook the (accurate) statement that “Islam wants to abuse democracy in order to get rid of democracy”; years before him a Danish historian was convicted for making the (truthful) statement that there was a high crime rate in areas with high Muslim populations. The list goes on. Even if something is genuinely hateful, it shouldn’t be censored. Almost every person says something which is arguably hateful at one point or another, and the First Amendment exists precisely to protect that which is disagreeable. Finally, hate speech laws are ineffective. Far from alleviating intergroup tensions and hostility, they exacerbate them.

4. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. The authors of this book want to prepare students for the road, not the road for the students. It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Which isn’t to say that academic professors shouldn’t care about student’s feelings. The authors outline proper steps that campuses can take to create inclusive communities where all students feel protected — but without catering to infantile absurdities like trigger warnings, microaggressions, or censorship. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman. Review in six parts: see here.

Free Speech Quiz

Jacob Mchangama’s book inspired me to make a free speech quiz, which you can take directly here. Explanations of the correct answers are at the bottom.

1. The first organized mass book burning in recorded history was ordered by

a. King Josiah, in the 7th century BCE
b. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, in the 3rd century BCE
c. King Antiochus IV, in the 2nd century BCE
d. Emperor Nero, in the 1st century CE

2. Who said that the Athenians attained greatness only when granted equality of speech?

a. Socrates
b. Demosthenes
c. Herodotus
d. Pericles

3. If you want to protect free speech in private universities and on corporate platforms, you would be protecting what kind of speech?

a. isegoria
b. parrhesia
c. eleftheria
d. skata

4. What religion has always prescribed the death penalty for thought crimes and blasphemy, and still does today?

a. Judaism
b. Hinduism
c. Buddhism
d. Islam

5. The Christian inquisitions began executing heretics for thought crimes and blasphemy in the year

a. 1184, under Pope Lucius III
b. 1199, under Pope Innocent III
c. 1231, under under Pope Gregory IX
d. 1252, under Pope Innocent IV

6. Which Calvinist said that atheists could be more virtuous than Christians, and had to flee France because of it?

a. Pierre Bayle
b. Daniel Chamier
c. Jean Dury
d. Francois Turrettini

7. The first known publisher who insisted on his right to publish material that was widely loathed, even by himself, was

a. Michael Spark, for the book “Histrio-mastix” (1632), which ridiculed the English king and queen
b. Pierre Marteau, for the book “Treatise of the Three Imposters” (1719), which portrayed Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as dim-witted frauds
c. Elie Luzac, for the book “Man a Machine” (1747), which argued that human beings are soulless animals
d. Diderot, for an entry in the Encyclopedie (1751-72), which cross-referenced “cannibals” with “the eucharist” and “communion”

8. After passing the First Amendment in 1791, how long did it take for the American government to pass a law that attacked it?

a. 7 years
b. 38 years
c. 70 years
d. 126 years

9. Which European ruler was the first monarch champion of free speech and the press, then later reversed and installed a regime of censorship?

a. Louis XIV (France)
b. Catherine the Great (Russia)
c. Charles VI (Holy Roman Emperor)
d. Mary Tudor (England)

10. In retaliation against the American South’s censorship of anti-slavery pamphlets, what Northern publication invited Southerners to publish their own (pro-slavery) pamphlets for distribution in the North, as an alternative to censoring the anti-slavery ones?

a. Freedom’s Defense
b. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
c. The Liberator
d. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

11. Which of the following American presidents did NOT violate the First Amendment?

a. Andrew Jackson
b. Abraham Lincoln
c. Woodrow Wilson
d. Warren Harding

12. No respectable study or evidence has shown any causal link between pornography and violence.

a. True
b. False

13. Which was NOT an argument used by the American Civil Liberties Union in defending the rights of American Nazis in 1934?

a. Hate speech laws are highly subjective and open to abuse.
b. Punishing Nazis for their speech makes martyrs out of monsters.
c. American Nazis are a fringe group having little impact.
d. Abandoning its principles would seriously undermine the ACLU’s position when defending the rights of other unpopular groups.

14. Which American president used tyrannical rhetoric (that of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao) in saying that news outlets were “enemies of the people”, and sued media outlets for defamation of his character?

a. Teddy Roosevelt
b. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
c. George W. Bush
d. Donald Trump

15. Which nation currently holds the world record for most imprisoned journalists, and also for having the most oppressive internet censorship apparatus?

a. Russia
b. China
c. Iran
d. Argentina

16. In what decade did the American Supreme Court rule that the First Amendment was legally binding on state governments, and not just the federal government?

a. 1870s
b. 1920s
c. 1950s
d. 1960s

17. A major difference between the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of the 2010s is that:

a. The former used boycotts to achieve its goal; the latter has not.
b. The former met with no police violence; the latter has met with loads of police violence.
c. The former relied heavily on the press to get its message out; the latter hasn’t used social media much for that purpose.
d. The former saw free speech as complementary to justice and equality; the latter has seen free speech as a threat to justice and equality.

18. Western leftists in 2005 condemned Danish cartoonists for drawing “hateful” pictures of the prophet Muhammad. Who was proven a real prophet, in having already warned that hate speech laws are easily open to this kind of perversion and abuse?

a. James Madison, at the signing of the Constitution in 1787
b. Edward Terry Sanford, from the Supreme Court bench in 1925
c. Eleanor Roosevelt, at the United Nations in 1950
d. John F. Kennedy, at the joint session of Congress in 1961

19. Which two writers believed that broad societal threats to free speech could be as threatening as government-imposed censorship?

a. George Orwell and John Stuart Mill
b. George Orwell and Thomas Paine
c. George Grote and John Stuart Mill
d. George Grote and Thomas Paine

20. Child pornography is illegal in America because

a. It’s an exception to the First Amendment — too offensive even for a law designed to protect offensiveness.
b. It involves the exploitation of real-world children.



1. b. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, in the 3rd century BCE. He ordered Confucian literature and historical records predating his reign to be burned and banned.

2. c. Herodotus. 

3. b. parrhesia. In Athens, isegoroia referred to the equality of public, civic speech, while parrhesia was frank or uninhibited speech in more general contexts (schools, theater, etc.)

4. d. Islam. Despite revisionist claims, Islam has always prescribed death for thought crimes like blasphemy and abandoning Islam. The punishment derives from Muhammad in the Sunnah and in many Hadith, and all four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanafi) continue to uphold the penalty today.

5. c. 1231, under under Pope Gregory IX. In 1184 Lucius III ordered heretics to be punished (this was the birth of the medieval inquisitions). In 1199, Innocent III declared heretics to be guilty of actual treason, and they had their goods confiscated. In 1231 Gregory IX demanded that heretics be burned at the stake (now execution was on the board). And in 1252 Innocent IV sanctioned a doctrine of torture for inquisitors to use.

6. a. Pierre Bayle.

7. Elie Luzac, for the book “Man a Machine” (1747), which argued that human beings are soulless animals.

8. a. 7 years. In 1798 Congress passed the infamous Sedition Act, which President John Adams enthusiastically signed. The Act made it a crime to simply criticize the president, Congress, or the federal government, whether by speech or press. (Adams and the Congressional Federalists were voted out of office, and under Thomas Jefferson’s presidency the Sedition Act died.)

9. b. Catherine the Great (Russia). In 1767 she had instructed the Commission on Laws to create a new legal code with government reforms based on liberal humanitarian political theories — that “all men should be considered equal before the law” — and she loved Voltaire and Diderot, and took inspiration from their ideas about free speech. In 1790 she reversed herself, disturbed by how the French Revolution was unfolding.

10. a. Freedom’s Defense. Written in 1836.

11. d. Warren Harding. The other three presidents egregiously violated the First Amendment: (a) Andrew Jackson petitioned Congress to pass an act prohibiting the circulation of abolitionist papers in the South; then he rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal. (b) Abraham Lincoln arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and threw them into prison; he closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. (c) Woodrow Wilson set the clock back to 1798 (the Sedition Act under John Adams), with a new Sedition Act during World War I that made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the aims of the government; protesting the draft was illegal; Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic; he fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war.

12. a. True.

13. c. American Nazis are a fringe group having little impact. That’s an irrelevant argument with regards to free speech.

14. d. Donald Trump. Of course.

15. b. China.

16. b. 1920s. The landmark case was Gitlow v. New York (1925), which ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the First Amendment’s provisions — freedom of speech and the press — to apply to the state governments, not just federal. This finally gave the First Amendment the teeth that it really needed.

17. d. The former saw free speech as complementary to justice and equality; the latter has seen free speech as a threat to justice and equality. It’s a sad commentary on the woke movement.

18. c. Eleanor Roosevelt, at the United Nations in 1950. Unfortunately her wisdom didn’t prevail.

19. a. George Orwell and John Stuart Mill. George Orwell warned that “unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”, and a century before him John Stuart Mill also feared society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government.

20. b. It involves the exploitation of real-world children. It’s a common misunderstanding that there are exceptions to the First Amendment, but there aren’t, since every person is offended in different degrees by different things. The law protects all offensive speech — in particular, that which offends you, more than someone else — including hate speech, which is highly subjective. Inciting violence, harassment, child pornography, using copyright, and disturbing the peace are all illegal, not because any of those are deemed “too offensive”, but because they violate the rights of others in some way.

Free Speech: A History from the 1930s to the Present

The first part of my review covered free-speech history from 500 BC to 1800 AD, and the second part covered 1800 to the 1920s. Here now are the final chapters which cover almost the last hundred years, in which we will see:

  • Chapter 10 warning against the temptation to fight intolerant people with your own intolerance, based on the examples of history.
  • Chapter 11 showing the strides made from the ’30s to the ’60s, resulting in a Golden Age of Free Speech lasting from the ’70s to the early ’00s.
  • Chapter 12 describing the Free Speech Recession that we’ve been in since the mid-’00s.
  • Chapter 13 asking what we do about the internet, and big-tech censorship that lies outside the purview of the First Amendment.

Chapters 10: The Totalitarian Temptation

In order to address the claim that “militant democracy” is necessary — that you have to fight intolerance with your own intolerance — Mchangama lets the regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler speak for themselves. When you endorse censorship, the time comes when your own tools will used against you. Eleanor Roosevelt was right, and Angela Merkel is wrong. The success of tyrants proves it.

The Weimar Fallacy

Mchangama covers all the tyrants of World War II, and I’ll take the last one he covers, Hitler, whose success owed in large part to the censoriousness of his foes. Although the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) was pretty good in upholding free speech, it did allow for censorship of cinema, public plays, and exhibitions (mostly for indecent material “to protect youth”), and — most fatally — it permitted the president to suspend free speech “if public safety and order was seriously disturbed or threatened”. That clause ended up destroying the democracy it intended to protect, making Hitler, in the end, quite happy.

The Weimar government has been called “an aesthetic educational dictatorship”. In the 20s it suspended the Nazi Party newspapers, and by 1925 most German states didn’t allow Hitler to speak publicly. The Weimar radio policy even began banning political parties and private businesses.

All of this gave Hitler not just the votes he needed (having been made a martyr), but the rhetorical comeback he needed to blast his opponents: if they were so supportive of equal rights and free speech, he asked, then why hadn’t they defended the Nazis right to speak impartially? Two months after he was sworn in as chancellor, Hitler spoke to the Reichstag:

“You should have recognized the beneficial power of criticism when we were in the opposition. Back then our press was forbidden and forbidden again; our assemblies were banned; we were not allowed to speak, and I was not allowed to speak — and that went on for years. And now you say criticism is beneficial!” (March, 1933)

Obviously Hitler never intended to allow political dissent or free speech in his regime. (He had made that crystal clear as early as 1920.) This rhetoric is simply, as Machnagama says, “the opportunistic, selective, and deeply hypocritical appeal to free speech when it serves one’s own agenda” — and a tactic we see today among the populist right. But the point is that this rhetoric was effective: Hitler appeared less authoritarian than he was — indeed he was cheered on by many — since he was absolutely correct in his criticisms of the government that silenced him.

The lesson is that democracies shouldn’t sacrifice free speech to counter organized hatred. They should do just the opposite, and not just for the practical reason explained by Mchangama (that countering intolerance with intolerance plays right into the tyrant’s hands), but for reasons of integrity: it’s the right thing to do regardless, to rise above your enemy and be better than that. It’s precisely what the Supreme Court did in the ’60s, as we’ll see below, in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

Chapter 11: The Age of Human Rights

Back in chapter 9 we saw that after being rendered a dead letter for so long, the First Amendment was resurrected after World War I, thanks largely to two things: the crusading efforts of the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and President Warren Harding’s appointments of four liberty conscious justices during his term (William Howard Taft in 1921, Pierce Butler and George Sutherland in 1922, and Edward Terry Sanford in 1923). The result (in 1925) was reinforcement of the First Amendment’s provisions — freedom of speech and the press — but now on the state level in addition to the federal. And throughout the ’30s were more court rulings that upheld the First Amendment.

After the second World War, the United Nations expanded freedoms for the world — including free speech and thought. The landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) protects freedom of speech and opinion in Article 19, but it’s a miracle that article was accepted, since most European democracies had exceptions for free speech (especially hate speech). It’s only because Britain backed America’s uncompromising position that Article 19 endorsed free speech with no strings attached.

That wasn’t the end though. In 1950 the Soviets pushed for a prohibition banning any advocacy of hatred — whether that hatred incited to violence or not. Eleanor Roosevelt (the U.S. delegate) warned, quite rightly, that the Soviet proposal was dangerous since

“any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred and consequently prohibited. It is equally difficult to differentiate between the various shades of feeling ranging from hatred to ill-feeling and mere dislike.”

Eleanor Roosevelt may as well have been looking into the post-9/11 era, where today any criticism of the doctrine of Islam and its leaders are considered to be hateful, when in fact they are not remotely hateful. Her writings for the UDHR should be required reading for wokes who believe that banning hate speech is a wise or practical idea.

Unfortunately Roosevelt’s wisdom didn’t prevail. As the United Nations worked on a the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (IICPR) (which would be passed in 1966), the votes required a provision against hate speech (in Article 20). 52 countries were in favor of the position, 19 against, and 12 abstained. The 19 who were against included almost all of the western liberal democracies. They feared — quite rightly — that outlawing hate speech would lead to authoritarian abuse, where the people whom the article intended to protect would become its victims… and those fears, as Mchangama’s book shows, were absolutely confirmed.

Back at home

America continued to hammer out more progress in the ’60s, and it’s only because of free speech that the Civil Rights Act was a success (wokes, take heed).

There were two landmark Supreme Court rulings during this period, the first being New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). The newspaper had run an ad for supporters of Martin Luther King Jr. that criticized the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for their mistreatment of civil rights protesters. The ad was filled with factual inaccuracies (the number of times King had been arrested during the protests, what song the protesters had sung, etc), and based on the inaccuracies, the Montgomery police commissioner sued the Times and was awarded $500,000 for defamation. But the Supreme Court overruled that, saying that defamation required “actual malice”, and even more importantly that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Mchanagama says this was a landmark ruling for “finally decapitating the zombie concept of seditious libel”, which had for centuries been aimed at critics of any government. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan fulfilled James Madison’s vision and what he had intended in drafting the Constitution.

The other landmark case was Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), in which a Ku Klux Klan leader (Clarence Brandenburg) led a rally that was filmed, showing several men in robes and hoods, some carrying firearms, others burning a cross and making speeches about “revengeance” against “niggers” and “Jews”. They announced plans for a march on Congress and called for the forced expulsion of African Americans to Africa and Jewish Americans to Israel. Brandenburg was charged with advocating violence, but the Court overruled that, on grounds that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action”. Based on this precedent, in 1977 the Supreme Court also upheld the right of American neo-Nazis to march in Skokie Illinois.

It’s worth underscoring, as Mchangama does, how the left of today differs radically from the left of the ’60s. Justice Thurgood Marshall was the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court (from 1967-1991), and he concurred in both the Ohio and Illinois cases — that the KKK had the right to do as they were doing, and the neo-Nazis just the same. As a liberal minority, Marshall might have been expected to vote the other way, but he believed adamantly that “liberty and equality, properly understood, complemented each other”. Which is common sense, in my opinion, but in the 21st century “liberty” has become a cuss word set in opposition, not in complement, to social justice.

Chapter 12: The Free Speech Recession

According to Mchangama, the late ’70s to the early ’00s were a Golden Age of Free Speech, as democracy continually triumphed over the globe — in places in South America, South Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Between 1979 to 2003, for example, the number of free countries in the world went from 32% to 46%, and the number of countries with press freedom went from 25% to 41%.

Since the mid-’00s, however, there has been a dramatic Free Speech Recession. In 2003, 41% of countries had a free press. By 2016, only 31% did. Media censorship has escalated, in print and on the web. Many of the seeds for this recession were planted on 9/11, and it was certainly in full swing by 2005, with the publication of the Danish cartoons. They satirized Muhammad — and the world lost its mind.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prophecy: The Conflation of Hate Speech and Blasphemy

She was right all along. In chapter 11 we saw her warning at the United Nations: that if hate speech prohibitions were codified into law, “any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred and consequently prohibited”. The UN paid her no mind, and throughout the ’00s — every year, up to 2010 — passed resolution after resolution against defaming religion.

Since then, western intellectuals and leftists have mind-bogglingly jumped on the bandwagon, effectively allying themselves with Islamists. The Islamist says that banning blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the western leftist says that it’s morally wrong but should be followed. Both positions yield the same outcome — those cartoons should not have been drawn — and they both decry free expression as an evil. Few could have predicted this stunning moral backwardness (aside from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt), and things have only gotten worse since the Danish cartoons and Charlie Hebdo murders.

The Presidency of Donald Trump

Mchangama notes how the consensus around free speech as a secular article of faith seemed to break down especially during Donald Trump’s presidency, “as hyperpartisan political tribalism became ever more unforgiving and heterodoxy was treated as heresy”. The woke movement began two years before Trump’s election, and indeed the wokes did much to drive voters into the arms of this demagogue, who in turn fueled a populist right movement that fanned the woke flames.

It’s all still fresh in our minds. In May 2020 protests erupted everywhere in America over George Floyd. Millions took the streets under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. But as Mchangama says, it was very unlike the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, whose activists saw free speech as complementary with justice and equality. The “Black Lives Matter” movement sees free speech as a threat to justice and equality. The wokes make a habit of deplatforming people whose opinions don’t toe the woke line, especially in academia. Mchangama captures the left-wing atmosphere of our time:

“Cancel culture migrated from campuses to media and cultural institutions; organized attempts to punish — rather than vocally criticize — specific viewpoints, through calling for people to be fired or disciplined, multiplied. So highly charged was the question of race that the mere mention or discussion of certain words, regardless of intent, could lead to serious consequences. More than a fifth of the 478 colleges and universities surveyed in 2020 had at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. An alarming 60% of surveyed students held back opinions because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond. Among liberal students, 13% thought violence to stop a speech or event on campus was either always or sometimes acceptable, while 60% thought it was always or sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker with opposing views.”

In this repressive atmosphere, Trump played the role of a blowtorch. He attacked news outlets as “enemies of the people”, invoking the rhetoric of Maximilien Robespierre (of the French Revolution), not to mention Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. He sued media outlets for defamation, and vowed to enact stricter libel laws. He even threatened punishments for burning the American flag. He wasn’t successful in any of this, but he was taking a giant shit on the First Amendment — and he made quite an impact on his followers. According to Mchangama, 44% of Republicans in 2018 agreed that the president should have the power to close down media outlets for “bad behavior” and 48% of Republicans considered the media the “enemies of the people”.

What does this all mean? Simple. The Free Speech Recession we’re currently in should raise serious questions about the viability of free expression in the United States. The thesis of this book is that free speech culture is as important — more important, actually — than free speech laws per se. The First Amendment is one of the best laws ever established, but it doesn’t defend itself. All it takes are five Supreme Court justices to decide that it’s obsolete, and out it goes. As Machangama notes, citing Greg Lukianoff, “Free speech culture is what informs the First Amendment today, and it is what will decide if our current free speech protections will survive into the future.”

Chapter 13: The Internet and the Future of Free Speech

Mchangama goes out with a bang in his final chapter, which details the impact social media has had on perceptions of free speech. The power wielded by corporate giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, has become absurd, as they — through their “Terms of Service” — ban more and more categories of speech:

“Facebook deleted 26.9 million pieces of content for violating its Community Standards on ‘hate speech’ in the last quarter of 2020. That’s nearly seventeen times the 1.6 million instances of deleted ‘hate speech’ in the last quarter of 2017. Twitter and YouTube also removed record levels of content in 2019 and 2020, respectively. No government in history has ever been able to exert such extensive control over what is being said, read, and shared by so many people across the world and in real time.”

Obviously, corporation censorship doesn’t fall within the First Amendment’s scope, and nor should it. That doesn’t mean big-tech censorship should be acceptable. Mchangama is right that it’s hard to reconcile a free speech culture with huge, centralized, corporate (and algorithmically driven) social media platforms acting as the gatekeepers of global parrhesia. John Stuart Mill feared society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and George Orwell also warned that “unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”.

For myself, I like the solution of continuing to allow corporations to censor as they desire, but only if they agree to be stripped of their legal immunities, so that they can be held liable for what is posted on their platforms. (It would solve the problem at once: no corporation would agree to that, since they would go bankrupt within a week.) Mchnagama mentions other alternatives, such as using antitrust laws to break up the concentration of power in big-tech platforms, without restricting the limits of user content, thus creating a more decentralized social media system.


All the reviews are right: this book is a damn near flawless history of free speech that everyone should read. I can nitpick a few things, but they’re trivial within the scope of the entire project. And despite my lengthy coverage, there’s a lot in the book I didn’t cover; there’s so much ground. So read it for yourself. If the lessons of history don’t convince you that opinions shouldn’t be silenced, no matter how dangerous, then there’s probably nothing that will.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Free Speech: A History from 1800 to the 1920s

In the first part of my review I covered 2300 years of free-speech history, stopping at 1800 AD. That was seven chapters of Mchangama’s book. Now I’ll do the next two chapters which cover about 125 years after 1800.

What becomes clear from Mchangama’s history is that free-speech culture is as important as free speech laws. Laws like the First Amendment are great, but — as this history shows time and time again — laws don’t defend themselves. People do. And if people become accustomed to having their voices inappropriately silenced in the private sphere (like in universities or big-tech media platforms), they start to become immune and think that censorship in the public sphere isn’t all that different or much to worry about.

Chapter 8: The Quiet Continent

When we left off in chapter 7, the newly founded United States had codified Athenian democracy and its pure version of free expression, and when the government (only seven years later) tried crushing that freedom, the offenders (the Federalists) were voted out of office. The culture of American free speech prevailed over the new law of the Sedition Act which violated the First Amendment. But only because people acted.

By contrast, the French Revolution had backfired horribly. For all the laws of liberty that were launched, the French had no background to practice what they preached. They had no culture of free speech to inform the way they reacted to opposition. The Revolution ate its own tail as a result, and the whole European continent would pay the price in a century’s worth of silence. With exceptional outbursts here and there.

Mchangama describes 19th-century Europe as the era of conservative restoration, where Enlightenment values

“smoldered among the networks of intransigent radicals and intellectuals who bided their time in small oases of intellectual freedom scattered around Switzerland, Belgium, and Paris. They diffused their ideas through reading groups and universities, where Europe’s collective brain fought to withstand the lobotomizing efforts of Counter-Enlightenment forces.”

One of these intransigent writers needs attention, as he is often forgotten: the Swiss-French political theorist Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). He wrote Principles of Politics Applicable to all Governments (1815), one of the most underrated contributions to free speech doctrine. He criticized the common wisdom: It wasn’t press freedom that had led to the French revolution and its horrors, but just the opposite. The denial of press freedom had allowed the French state to degenerate and its abuses go unchecked by public scrutiny. Censorship had been so repressive that it made the French people too anxious and ignorant to know the real value and meaning of freedom once it was thrust on them. And like Spinoza, Trenchard/Gordon, and Madison, Constant argued that the dangers of censorship far outweighed the dangers of uninhibited free expression.

His ideas would remain distant ideals until the end of the century. The 1800s were the years of backlash and back-and-forths. Liberal reforms gave way to censorious crackdowns, then vice-versa, and the cycles kept repeating. France, for example, went through three more revolutions before it obtained free expression: in 1830, “The Three Glorious Days”, which yielded positive results for only a few months; in 1848, “The Springtime of the Peoples”, which resulted in the Second Republic, until Napoleon’s nephew took over and eventually became emperor of France (1852-1870), demolishing free speech entirely; and in 1877, when the Third Republic (worse than even Napoleon) lost the elections to a new liberal government, which by 1881 finally established freedom of the press (with certain limitations) for good.

Over in Britain

Britain started out repressively as well, prosecuting blasphemy left and right, but after 1825 things got better. Prosecutions dropped considerably, thanks to the relentless uproar over oppressive measures against free speech. After 1825, Deist publications like Age of Reason could suddenly be sold freely. And the Great Reform Act of 1832 expanded the electorate and then stamp duty was reduced by a dramatic 75% in 1836. Annual newspaper sales increased from 25.5 million to over 53 million in just two years.

That’s how a culture of free speech makes headway. There was persistent defiance in Britain, along with a growing appreciation for the Athenian view of liberty. George Grote’s A History of Greece (1846-1856) had a lot to do with contributing to this culture. But it was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) that had the largest influence in Britain during this century. Like Grote, Mill took inspiration from the Athenians, citing Demosthenes’ idea about free speech making it possible to exchange error for truth. Most importantly — as if acutely aware of Milton’s Curse — Mill had no patience with free speech “butism”, in other words, people who supported free speech but objected to “extreme” cases, blind to the fact that “unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case”. This aligns with the American First Amendment, which holds that nothing is too offensive, for that’s the whole point of free speech, which is offensive — and highly subjectively so — and thus the more offensive it is, the more it requires protection.

Mill also warned not only against government tyranny but the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling”, and society’s impulse to “impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”. Mill could well have been looking into a crystal ball and seeing the woke culture of the 21st century. As Mchangama says, his fears about private threats to a free-speech culture were well founded: as legal impediments to free speech declined, powerful new informal ones took their place. Businessmen assumed ownership and control of the press, and they often muted the voices they didn’t like. Think of Facebook and Twitter and Youtube in the 21st century. Today the capricious power of big-tech companies are bringing home to us Mill’s point, that free-speech culture is as important as the rule of law, and that not caring about what corporations do because they are private is short-sighted in the extreme.

So by the end of the 19th century, free speech and the press (with certain limitations) had settled in Britain and Europe. But what about America during this time? Surely it was the singular exception that stood out like a beacon, continually upholding free speech in all cases. It was certainly renowned for that… aside from a rather glaring problem.

Chapter 9: Slavery and War

This is a good chapter. We saw that the Sedition Act of 1798 was defeated and the idea of egalitarian free speech upheld by the U.S. federal government — but not necessarily by state governments, and certainly not to black slaves in the southern states. Nor was it even upheld by the federal government during times of war (the Civil War and World War I). Here we enter the world of rank hypocrisy, though as we’ll see, Mchangama avoids mentioning a rather glaring case of that hypocrisy.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson is the presidential demon of this period, and it all started during his first year in office. In 1829 a free black man named David Walker mailed his antislavery pamphlet to the South, and the legislators of Georgia mandated the death penalty for anyone who circulated such “vile” literature. Shortly after that draconian attack on free expression, the American Abolitionist movement took wing, and began mass mailing their “vile” pamphlets, and by the mid-1830s other states in the South were following Georgia’s lead, imposing punishments like flogging and death.

Mchangama underscores the hypocrisy of Virginia in particular. In my view it’s one of the most striking cases of a collective “free speech for me but not for thee”. Back in 1776 the state had approved the first state declaration of rights, insisting that press freedom was restrained only by despotic governments; likewise in 1798 the state had led the fight against President John Adams and his Sedition Act. But now, in 1836, Virginia made a law that criminalized publications that encouraged black people to rebel or deny slave masters their property. Free speech for me but not thee, indeed — and states could away with this nonsense, since the First Amendment only prohibited the federal government (not the states) from interfering in free speech.

The federal executive, President Andrew Jackson, saw no reason to abide by the First Amendment. In addition to the many stains on his soul, he was the first active pro-slavery president. (There were presidents before him who happened to own slaves, of course, as was standard, and some of them even not liking the practice. Jackson was the first president to actually crusade for the cause of slavery.) As the abolitionists mass-mailed their anti-slavery tracts to the South, Jackson approved his postmaster general allowing them to be burned. Jackson himself wanted the abolitionists blacklisted — their names recorded in newspapers — and he attacked free speech and the press by recommending that Congress pass an act prohibiting the circulation of abolitionist papers in the South. But there was wide agreement that Jackson was way out of line here, and the bill didn’t pass. Not to be outdone, however, Jackson then rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal. The rule remained in force for eight years (1836-1844), until Congressman John Quincy Adams finally got it rescinded.

In retaliation came the pseudonymous Freedom’s Defense (1836), which took the very commendable high ground by encouraging the Southern press to publish their most incendiary racist publications for wide distribution in the North, just as the abolitionists were doing with their own literature in the South. If only 21st century wokes had the same wisdom and integrity. That’s the way to fight speech you don’t like; not by burning, gagging, and censoring. And as Mchangama notes, this very effectively put the South on the defensive, as it showed them to be intellectual cowards.

The power of the printed word enabled women to fight slavery, not least in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which sold 300,000 copies in the first year, and 2 million by 1857. The book causes many slaveholders to free their slaves, just as it inspired many slaves to flee to the North. Naturally the book was banned in the Southern states with ugly penalties awaiting the offenders. A free black man in Maryland, for example, got ten years in prison for owning the book.

The runaway slave Fredrick Douglass gave powerful lectures, and in 1860 he called free speech, famously, “the dread of tyrants”, without which “liberty is meaningless”. He said that “slavery cannot tolerate free speech”, and that “five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South”. Most importantly, “to suppress free speech is a double wrong, because it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker”.

The idea that free speech is a fundamental component of racial equality would become critical in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and it’s a travesty that the woke version of social justice sees free speech as antithetical to such justice.

Two Wars: Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson

When Mchangama turns to Abraham Lincoln, he rightly praises the freeing of the slaves, but conveniently forgets to mention that this presidential liberator was nonetheless an enemy of the First Amendment. Lincoln arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. He physically attacked and removed a peace movement. On top of all that, he created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. Those civilians were simply exercising their free-speech rights. When it came to the First Amendment, Lincoln was no different that John Adams and Andrew Jackson. For a comprehensive history of free speech to ignore this is a serious shortfall.

Lincoln’s precedent had consequences. From the time of the Civil War through World War I, the First Amendment was a dead letter. Mchangama explains how the Supreme Court consistently refused to apply the Bill of Rights to state laws, and they even approved racial segregation as Constitutional (in the notorious 1896 ruling Plessy v. Ferguson). The “separate but equal doctrine” would remain in force until the 1960s, and free speech itself wouldn’t resurface as a meaningful right until after World War I in the 1920s. This brings us to Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson was the worst president in history, for every reason you can name, but we’ll stick to the subject at hand. Wilson set the clock back to 1798, notes Mchangama, but it was even worse than under John Adams and the Sedition Act. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the new Sedition Act of 1918 made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or the aims of the government. Protesting the draft was illegal, and you couldn’t speak badly of American allies. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic.

Wilson fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war. Filmmaker Robert Goldstein got a ten-year sentence for producing a movie on the American Revolution which portrayed the now-allied British in a naturally bad light. The feminist free-speech advocate Emma Goldman was arrested 40 times, spent time in prison, and was eventually deported for opposing the draft. Critiquing the war in any way bordered on treason.

Free Speech Resurrected

The First Amendment clearly needed resurrection, and it’s no surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded (in 1920) in response to the worst president of all time. The ACLU fought uncompromisingly for free speech, and for minorities suffering discrimination. They also fought for the free speech rights of American Nazis, in the pamphlet Shall We Defend the Free Speech of Nazis in America? (1934), as Mchangama states:

“It made a meticulous case for the ACLU’s principled stand by highlighting how free speech restrictions had been used to systematically target progressive movements, how hate speech laws were open to interpretation and abuse, that punishing Nazis for their speech only made martyrs out of monsters, and that abandoning its principles would seriously undermine the ACLU’s position when defending the rights of other unpopular groups.”

That’s solid liberalism and unassailable logic, and yet in today’s world one labors in vain to convince the “liberal” left of its wisdom.

The First Amendment was also revived by the Supreme Court throughout the ’20s, thanks to the four justices — yes, a whopping four — picked by President Warren Harding. Harding was the opposite in every way of Woodrow Wilson, and his picks were free-speech conscious justices. The result of this was the landmark case Gitlow v. New York (1925), which ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the First Amendment’s provisions — freedom of speech and the press — to apply to the state governments, not just federal. At long last the First Amendment had the teeth it needed.

And as we will see, it would need those teeth in the years ahead.

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to the Year 1800

I’m halfway through this new history of free speech and can already tell it’s a winner. A history of the world framed in terms of the evolution of free thought and expression is just what we need today. I’m surprised by how much I’m learning from it.

I’m astonished by how many historical figures began as strong advocates for free speech and expression, only to become the most virulent censors and monuments to intolerance when confronted with the free speech of others. As Mchangama says at the outset:

“Almost invariably, the introduction of free speech sets in motion a process of entropy. The leaders of any political system — no matter how enlightened — inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far.”

In some ways this is the old story of “free speech for me but not for thee”, but I never grasped the epic scope of the problem, and how differently it manifests in different places and times. It’s sobering — and I’m only halfway through. That will be a sizable enough agenda for now. I’ll review chapters 1-7 below (which will take us up to the year 1800), and then the subsequent chapters in later posts.

Chapter 1: Ancient Beginnings

Our story doesn’t start where some open minds might suggest that it should. Not with Persia, for example. The clay cylinder of Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 BC) has been hailed as an ancient declaration of human rights — permitting freedom of religion throughout Cyrus’s vast empire — but that religious tolerance was offset by the emperor’s practice of burning down temples, cutting off peoples’ noses and ears, and burying people neck-deep in the desert, when they disobeyed him for any reason at all.

Nor can we look to India’s Ashoka the Great (304-232 BC) for any real free-speech inspiration. While he did declare that “all religions should reside everywhere”, that wasn’t an endorsement of anything like religious expression or free thought by a long shot. Ashoka also insisted on restraint in speech — in other words, not praising one’s own religion, and not condemning the religion of others.

Likewise, the so-called “primitive democratic strains” among the Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, and Phoenicians weren’t much to speak of. Some of their assemblies and tribunals allowed for degrees of representation and political debate, but it was a far cry from anything that could be considered free speech in any genuine sense.

We start where the start really began: in Athens and Rome. In his first chapter Mchangama contrasts the Athenian Democracy and Roman Republicanism, which valued free speech in different ways. These political institutions were nice while they lasted. After their falls, the world would have to wait for the printing press and Protestant Reformation to pursue free thought with the same level of commitment.

Athens (527-322 BC)

For the most part the Athenians practiced an impressive democracy during this period. Citizens debated and voted for their own laws. Power was in the hands of the whole people, and everyone was equal before the law — “everyone”, of course, meaning those who weren’t women, foreigners, or slaves. Still, the idea of all native free men living in an egalitarian society was radical for its time. Athenians could criticize their own constitution. There was no public institution of censorship to ensure conformity in writing, science, and public discourse. The Old Comedies took scathing pot-shots at elitist citizens, and even the gods.

And as Mchangama notes, it was recognized that what made the Athenians so great as a society was precisely its practice of free speech. Herodotus (484-425) said that while living under tyranny the Athenians had been an unremarkable people, and that they only attained greatness when they were granted equality of speech. Pericles (496-429) likewise said that free popular discourse was a key to social strength. The orator Demosthenes (384-322) said further that what marked out Athenians as especially enlightened was that they could criticize their own constitution and praise the Spartan one (while the Spartans could not criticize their own and had to tread carefully in praising others). The ability to freely criticize one’s own political system would become a critical litmus test of future democracies.

The Athenians valued two kinds of free speech: isegoria (the equality of public speech in the Athenian Assembly) and parrhesia (frank and uninhibited speech outside the Assembly, in the marketplace, schools, theaters, etc). For them, free speech wasn’t just a political principle (like the American First Amendment is today); it extended to the cultural sphere more broadly. If the Athenians could have seen into the 21st century, I doubt they would have made much distinction between governmental censorship in a town square and big-tech CEO censorship on social media.

And yet, the Athenian tolerance for free expression wasn’t air tight. There was at least one individual who got so under everyone’s skin that he eventually had to die for it: Socrates (470-399 BC). He was basically the first recorded martyr for free speech. We don’t know exactly why he was executed, but the charge was that he “refused to recognize the gods that were recognized by the state” and that he “corrupted the youth.” Something he said was evidently too offensive, even by Athenian standards, and I suspect it had to do more with the way he thrived on humiliating his oponents. As Mchangama describes him:

“Socrates delighted in humiliating his verbal sparring partners by luring them down logical dead ends, forcing even the most prominent of Athenians to admit their own ignorance. His opponents would start sweating or break down in tears when verbally stripped naked and slowly roasted.”

I can see how a guy like this would eventually make people snap, especially in the honor-shame world of the ancient Mediterranean. Socrates’s parrhesia evidently took free speech too far, though probably more in its delivery than its content. As we’ll see as we proceed through Mchangama’s history, modern democracies are prone to repeat the same outbreaks of intolerance, for any number of reasons. On whole though, Athenian democracy did quite well while it lasted.

Rome (509-27 BC)

The Romans valued free speech, but not like the Athenians. The Athenian democracy was bottom-up, direct, and egalitarian; the Roman Republic was top-down, hierarchical, and elitist. Cicero (106-43 BC), for example, was all for free expression — for the benefit of the elite. It was reserved for the “best men” in the Senate, not “the plebs, artisans, shopkeepers, and that scum”, as he saw them.

There’s no denying the overall Roman idea of libertas was enlightened and progressive in the ancient world. All citizens were granted civil rights and equality before the law (even if as plebs they couldn’t speak their heart’s content). No citizen could be executed without a fair trial, and everyone had the right to protest the decisions of magistrates. Libertas included the freedom enjoyed by commoners through voting in the assemblies. But when it came to speaking one’s mind, there were no Roman equivalents of isegoria and parrhesia. Roman free speech was the privilege of senators, magistrates, and orators.

Indeed, as Mchamgama notes, the Roman Republicans were at once thin-skinned and heavy-handed when it came to offensive speech from the wrong mouths. One of their laws prescribed scourging for slander. “The early Romans had no problem applying sticks and stones to break the bones of name-callers.” This was basically a “free speech for me but not for thee” policy, grounded in social class.

The Roman martyr for free speech was Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), who was unwilling to live in a world led by Julius Caesar. Cato refused to even grant Caesar the power to pardon him, and so he killed himself, saying,

“I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead.”

It was free speech reserved for Roman elites, admittedly, but free speech just the same compared to the empire of the Caesars that followed. And it would be Cato, ironically, rather than Socrates, who would be an inspiration for James Madison’s draft of the First Amendment, which harked back to the Athenian egalitarian model of free speech, rather than the Roman elitist one.

Chapter 2: The “Not-So-Dark Ages” — Inquisition in Medieval Islam and Christendom

This chapter isn’t bad but it is the book’s weakest. Mchangama tries to salvage more from the dark ages than is really there, especially from the Islamic world, where free speech was anathema. I’ve explained why the Dark Ages are an entirely appropriate term for the 7th-10th centuries, and that avoiding the term amounts to PC pandering more than anything else.

In the Islamic World

As a preliminary point, regarding the supposed enlightenment of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th-10th centuries: medicine, math, and philosophy never originated in any part of the Islamic world. Medicine came from the Nestorian Christians; mathematics from the Hindus; philosophy from the Persians. When the Arabs conquered the Christian world and took over Christian Greek universities, it’s true that they started teaching subjects like medicine, math, and philosophy; but the only degrees you could get at their schools was in religious law. Philosophy was a hobby for the select few and had no impact on daily life, for that was the role of sharia. As for most of the arts — sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric — they mostly weren’t taught at all, deemed unseemly if not blasphemous. It’s thus a bit misleading to say, as Mchangama does, that “The Abbasid Caliphate contributed vastly to expanding the limits of medieval thought and reason and preserving the learning of the ancient world.” Preserving, yes, to a degree; “contributing vastly” in the manner suggested, no.

He acknowledges that the death penalty for speech and thought crimes (like blasphemy and abandoning Islam) derives from Muhammad himself, in the Sunnah and in many Hadith — a famous passage involving the prophet having two girls executed for ridiculing him in poetic songs. He also acknowledges that all four Sunni schools of Islamic law (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanafi) prescribed (and still prescribe) the death penalty for such thought crimes, but also tries to find some wiggle room:

“But the Shafi’i and Hanafi schools that dominated the eastern part of the Abbasid Caliphate stipulated that in order to warrant a death sentence apostasy must be openly declared, and that the apostates must also be given the chance to repent and escape execution. As a result, punishment for apostasy was rare. That would change in the eleventh century…”

Frankly we don’t know how rare it was. Arguments from silence are dicey. Mchangama also uses fringe examples, like Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911), who became a virtual atheist, criticizing the Qur’an as absurd, miracles as tricks, pilgrimages and prayers as worthless — and “took delight in the shock and outrage that followed in the wake of his one-man demolition show of revealed religion”. This guy may have managed to escape execution, but as Mchangama notes, none of his works have survived, as there was zero tolerance for such beliefs. There was also Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864-925), the Persian physician and philosopher — said to have written more than two hundred books medicine, chemistry, astronomy, math, and philosophy — who was critical of the restrictions that religion placed on free thought. But these two fringe radicals were certainly not mainstream or exemplary in their day.

In Christendom

Mchangama is on better ground here. He correctly notes that while laws against heresy stretch back to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, heresy virtually disappeared as an issue in the Latin West from the seventh to eleventh centuries. Then, in the eleventh century, thought crimes became a thing under the reformist popes (especially Gregory VII), though up until the late twelfth century, the first line of defense against heresy was usually persuasion instead of persecution. That changed in 1184, when Pope Lucius III ordered heretics to be unremittingly punished — and thus was born the medieval inquisitions. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared heresy to be a crime of actual treason. Heretics were not yet executed (as they had always been, and are still today, in the Islamic world), but they had their goods confiscated, and their children were consigned to a life of poverty. In 1231, however, execution was on the board: Pope Gregory IX demanded that unrepentant heretics pay “the debt of hatred”, which was death at the stake. And even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who as an elitist scholar enjoyed the privilege of studying pagan philosophy, supported the execution of unrepentant and obstinate blasphemers.

Mchangama cautions, however, that despite the horror stories of sadistic cruelty and widespread burning spread by Protestant partisans, Enlightenment thinkers, and liberal historians (not to mention wild exaggerations in popular novels like The Da Vinci Code), “the medieval inquisitions were less bloody than one might imagine”. Torture and execution happened, but they were not the norm as they were in Islam. Indeed, the burning of a heretic was considered a failure on the part of the Christian inquisitor — a failure to reform the misguided heretic. The norm was rather social shaming (heretics forced to wear distinctive dress) and “prison on remand”, by which heretics were isolated from others and subjected to clerical persuasion without interference.

The Spanish Inquisition, on the other hand, was something else, created not by the church, but by the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, and it targeted primary Jews for (supposedly) undermining Christianity on the Iberian peninsula. There were about two thousand executions between 1492-1520, and then about a thousand from 1520-1834, when the Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished. Three thousand people is considerably less than the tens or hundreds of thousands in popular imagination, but it’s nonetheless accurate to call the Spanish Inquisition a reign of terror. It was often characterized by oral evidence motivated by personal grievances. People were burned at the stake thanks to neighbors who “remembered” how, decades before, someone changed his sheets on a Friday, or nodded his head as if praying in a Jewish manner, etc.

To repeat, chapter two of this book isn’t bad, but the author is snared into making a false equivalence with “the institution of the Inquisition in the West and the ‘closing of the Muslim mind’ through the hardening of Islamic law”. Islamic law had been hard from the get, and it’s no accident that the Catholic inquisitions (starting in the 1180s) were launched in the wake of trials and tortures committed by the Islamic Almohads of Spain (who ousted the Almoravids in 1147). That doesn’t excuse the Christian church, but it does suggest a causal connection: the church may have never gotten inquisitorial ideas if not for Islam.

Chapter 3: The Great Disruption — Gutenberg, Luther, and the Viral Reformation

With 1440 came the first explosion. The invention of the printing press expanded access to knowledge like nothing before it (and like nothing after it until the internet’s social media). Societal growth and innovation followed — for that’s what the spread of knowledge does — and with it the acceleration of certain ideas about intellectual freedom and the right to speak one’s mind.

The flip side is that the printing press also churned out political and religious propaganda, hate speech, obscene cartoons, and all sorts of unwelcome (to Christians) pagan heresies. Erasmus, for example, complained that

“Printers fill the world with pamphlets and books — foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious, and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their greatness.”

That sounds a lot like some 21st-century reactionary attitudes to social media, for good reason. Printers allowed moral panics to go viral, with consequences far more devastating than those of today’s Twitter storms. Books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) fanned the flames of witch hunts between the late 15th and early 18th centuries, in which an estimated 45,000 “witches” were executed.

With 1517 came the second fireball: “Martin Luther and Johannes Gutenburg were a match made in heaven (or hell, according to the church)”, enabling Luther to peddle his heretical ideas to the tune of 300,000 publications in the space of three years (1517-20). Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms in 1521, and demanded that Luther recant all his blasphemous words. To which Luther famously replied:

“Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.”

If Socrates was the first watershed moment in the history of free thought, and Cato the second, then Luther was the third. The emperor promptly issued an edict declaring it illegal to buy, sell, read, preserve, copy, print any of Luther’s books.

There is a big difference, however, between Luther and Socrates & Cato. What’s so entertaining about free speech is that no one really likes it when it catches on. Luther became quickly horrified by the consequences of making his Bibles available to everyone — when they fell into the hands of all the peasants and serfs he disdained. With affordable and easy-to-read vernacular Bibles, those peasants could now read passages that were never preached from the pulpits. Like the letter of James, which warned oppressors on behalf of laborers who break their backs toiling in the fields. (And Luther hated the epistle of James.) Emboldened by these subversive texts, peasants staged a mass revolt in 1524-25, demanding the abolition of serfdom in the name of God, and razing castles and monasteries in the name of the Gospel. Point counterpoint, Luther used other Biblical texts to enjoin princes to hunt down and massacre these peasants “for the mad dogs that they are”.

Luther, in other words, was a flaming hypocrite, and ended up using censorship to stifle the spread of Protestant doctrines that he disagreed with — which was basically all of them except for his. Mchangama writes that

“In retrospect, it was rather naive of Luther to actively democratize access to the Bible and expect everyone to toe his line. If the pope had no divine authority to determine universal Christian truth, why should Christians slavishly follow the theology of some constipated German monk?”

But even the worst hypocrites set positive precedents that set things in motion. Today the populations in Lutheran states like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are among the most secular and liberal in the world, distinguishing sharply between religion and morality, and valuing free speech over religious doctrines. Luther certainly didn’t intend that (his Lutheran churches were still instruments of the state) but then the snowball effect of free speech takes on a life of its own.

Across the English Channel, Henry VIII became another freedom-fighter turned oppressor, and in his wake, the Bloody Mary and the other Tudors. However, Mchangama distinguishes between the Tudor censorship in England and the Catholic/Protestant censorship in Continental Europe. While they both used draconian laws to suppress speech and ban books, most of the English censorship dealt with forms of defamation or libel rather than heresy, while the continental censorship dealt with thought crimes — ideological offenses, and wrong ideas that clashed with whatever Protestant or Catholic doctrine was in question. The English also stressed the importance of intent. “Accordingly, the English censorship regime was generally milder by sixteenth-century standards, although certainly oppressive by modern ones.”

The Catholic response to the Protestants was to double down on censorship in the Counter Reformation and restrict access to scripture for the lower classes, who could not read Latin (which of course created the perfect conditions for a booming black market in underground literature). Pope Paul III created the Roman Inquisition in 1542, which was used as an internal affairs bureau to smoke out heretics. In its first two centuries of operation, it conducted around 50,000 formal trials and handed 1250 of those over to the state to be executed for thought crimes.

All in all, thanks the printing press and revolts against the church, Europe became a fertile ground for experiments in freedom of conscience and speech.

Chapters 4: The Seeds of Enlightenment

These seeds were sown on a 17th-century battleground left by 16th-century clashes and counter-clashes, especially in Holland and Britain.

The Dutch Radicals

The reasons why free speech found a home in the Dutch Republic were pragmatic as much as principled. Holland was a decentralized nation with provincial institutions, and a large number of sects shared the same territory. Put simply, they all had to get along. This gave rise to a cosmopolitan and learned culture, and a remarkably high degree of tolerance for free speech.

The playwright Dirck Coornhert (1522-1590) was a radical champion of tolerance and open debate. While he didn’t promote absolute free speech (he made an exception for seditious speech), he was still way ahead of his time. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that free speech was a necessary precondition for peace, prosperity, and progress. He too carved out an exception for seditious speech, but like Coornhert argued that free speech was a precondition (instead of a danger) to social peace.

Naturally the States of Holland caved in to ecclesiastical pressure (of the Reformed Church) and banned Coonhert’s and Spinoza’s books. They were “books forged in Hell”, “as vile and blasphemous as the world has ever known”, indeed “utterly pestilential”. That pestilence continued with the French Huguenot, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), who fled Louis IV’s anti-Protestant policies and came to the Dutch Republic in 1681. Bayle went so far as to claim that atheists could be more virtuous than Christians (which none of his fellow Calvinists accepted).

Over in Britain

There were great strides here as well, but the British heroes are overrated and they overshadow the lesser known and truer heroes. I agree with Mchangama that it’s one of the injustices of free-speech history that John Milton (1608-1674) is remembered as the great 17th century champion, while the names of John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Wayne have been forgotten. Those three were part of the movement known as the Levellers (1646-49), committed to popular sovereignty, equality before the law, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech and the press. Their ideas of democracy and almost limitless free speech were a pipe dream at the time, but they suffered arrest and imprisonment for their courage, and they deserve to be remembered far more than Milton.

The reason is that Milton fell into Luther’s Trap, and became the thing he hated. Mchangama doesn’t call it “Luther’s Trap” as I do, but rather “Milton’s Curse”, but we mean the same thing: the selective defense of free speech. Milton’s central argument in Areopagitica was that censorship led to “the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made, both in religious and civil wisdom.” He thus declared, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

But that eloquent defense of free speech came with a slew of buts. Milton advocated press freedom, but not for pro-papist writings. He condoned the burning of “mischievous and libelous” books. He was basically a free-speech advocate when it came to facilitating open discussion between Reformed Protestant sects, but he certainly didn’t believe in free and equal speech for all. Milton also praised the enactment of a law from 1650 against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions.” He even joined the censors under the military dictatorship of Richard Cromwell. After Martin Luther, John Milton was the most colossal hypocrite on the subject of free speech.

John Locke (1632-1704), known as the father of liberalism, is also overrated compared to the Levellers. He argued commendably that neither pagan, Jew, or Muslim should be excluded from the Civil Rights of the Commonwealth due to religion. But he thought Catholics and atheists should be excluded, and he didn’t defend free speech as consistently as the Dutch radicals or the Levellers. Still, Locke did deliver a killing blow in 1695, by lobbying a friend in Parliament to end the Licensing Act of 1662, which regulated the press and prohibited certain forms of speech. Parliament replied, however, with the Blasphemy Act of 1697. Prepublication censorship was finally gone in Britain, but postpublication punishment for speech crimes (like blasphemy and sedition) remained very much alive.

Basically in the 1600s, those who pursued free speech consistently (the Dutch Radicals, the Levellers) suffered for it, while those who settled for half measures (Milton’s Curse) made some headway. And sure enough, Milton’s Curse would keep boomeranging back in the centuries ahead.

Chapter 5: Enlightenment Now

For all the skepticism and enlightened thinking that was gaining ground, censorship didn’t fade in the late 17th and early 18th centuries; it just passed from the church to the secular hands of the state. Censors redirected their efforts from doctrinal matters to “toxic” philosophy, political dissent, and obscenity.

But there was no stopping the free speech movement by this point. Mchangama notes that coffee houses became the 18th-century equivalent of social media, where pamphlets, newspapers, and books were shared and discussed. The number of coffee houses in London increased from 83 in 1663 to 550 in 1700; and in Paris from 280 in 1720 to 900 in 1789. The coffee houses were egalitarian to the core; neither your bloodline or wealth mattered, just your capacity for reasoned discussion.

Then, in the radical Dutch Republic, came the equivalent of our 21st-century Dark Web: clandestine printing, a lawless black hole of filth, crime, and sedition, such that works like The Treatise of the Three Imposters (1719) attacked Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad with atheist glee. Censors fought tooth and nail to destroy these screeds. When Man a Machine (1747) was published, the book was banned and burned across Europe — including in the Dutch Republic itself. Its publisher Elie Luzac was outraged at the book burning, which is very notable since he had no sympathy with the book’s atheist viewpoint, being a pious if liberal Calvinist. He believed passionately that atheism should be countered in open debate, not by censorship.

Mchangama is right to underscore Luzac as watershed moment in the history of free speech, as the publisher

“provided pious Christians a justification for tolerating impious speech at a time when such tolerance was rejected out of hand even by liberals. His truly groundbreaking contribution to the history of free speech was his defense of the right to publish a book containing ideas widely deemed utterly loathsome, even by himself… The fact that Luzac, like Dirck Coornhert and the Levellers, has largely faded from the history of free speech is a travesty, given the trailblazing nature of his arguments.”

Britain produced some important underground literature during this time as well, especially the Whigs John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They wrote Cato’s Letters (in 1720-23), taking their pseudonym from the Roman senator Cato the Younger, the martyr (as we saw above) for free speech under Caesar. Gordon’s words in one of the letters are now famous:

“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together. And it is the tenor of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them.”

This was an argument to protect all individuals against abuse of power. Of course, the historical Cato believed in the elitist free speech of the Roman tradition, not the egalitarian free speech of the Athenian tradition, but regardless, Cato’s Letters would become enthusiastically cited in the New World and pressed into service of the Athenian model when the Constitution was written. The letters further conceded that while libelous statements are indeed unlawful, truthful ones could not be punished, laying the foundations for “truth is a defense” in American libel lawsuits.

In France

Like Holland and Britain, France had its own black market and crusaders for free speech, like the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), who was famously imprisoned. Those who were shrewd used the VPN of the time, publishing their works anonymously abroad and then having them smuggled into France.

The two heroes that need attention here are Voltaire and Diderot. Voltaire (1694-1778) is famous for his (surely apocryphal) words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, but as Mchangama says, the real Voltaire would doubtfully have died to defend the speech of his enemies. He was not the free speech absolutist suggested by his legend. His inspiration was basically England, where press freedom meant the right to publish without prior censorship, but not without subsequent punishments. To him people had “the right to make use of their pens at their own peril”. And like the Romans (not the Athenians), he believed that free speech was a privilege for the enlightened few; like Cicero he held the common people and their opinions in complete contempt.

But even if Voltaire succumbed to Milton’s Curse, his contributions shouldn’t be minimalized. They played a key role in advancing the cause of free speech in 18th-century Europe, and well beyond. After the Islamic jihadist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015, Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance became a sudden bestseller in France.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was the other free speech advocate who succumbed to Milton’s Curse. In 1772 he called for censorship when someone pissed him off by sharply criticizing the Encyclopedists and their works. Diderot was one of the editors of the Encyclopédie, which was compiled from 1751 to 1772 with the ambitious goal of presenting “all the knowledge in the world”, for the purpose of “changing the way people think”. Needless to say, the Encyclopédie was filled with subversive ideas that infuriated loads of people. But instead of replying to the challenger of the Encyclopedists, Diderot went straight to the lieutenant general of the police and asked him to suppress the rival work for impugning the honor of the Encyclopedists. Milton’s Curse indeed.

But as with Voltaire, Diderot still deserves immense credit, as Mchangama notes, for “his often lonely and desperate fight to keep writing, editing, and publishing the Encyclopédie against all the odds, surviving vicious abuse and intimidation, mass defection by his contributors, heavy official suppression, and the very real threat of prison and worse.”

In Scandinavia

The advancements in the Dutch Republic, Britain, and France were impressive, but it was Scandinavia that became the first region in the world to provide legal protection for free speech and abolish any and all forms of censorship. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act (1766) was a watershed moment, as such a firm protection of free speech didn’t legally exist anywhere else on earth. (Not even the Dutch Republic had any laws yet that positively protected free speech.) Granted this lasted for only six years — as a royal coup in 1772 brought an end to Sweden’s Age of Liberty — but what was accomplished in that short time frame inspired Sweden’s neighbors to outdo them in free speech reforms.

In 1770 the physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772) became the de facto ruler of Denmark and Norway, and persuaded the ailing king Christian VII to abolish all censorship of the press. Danes were now free to voice their opinions on any matter that concerned them, and they wasted no time publishing pamphlets commenting on the economy, religion, sex. Naturally that freedom opened the floodgates to literary bile, lies, and nasty invective. Struensee paid mightily for his accomplishment — arrested and charged with high treason in 1772, beheaded, quartered, and his dismembered body parts displayed in public for all to see.

The Swedish and Danish/Norwegian free-speech eras may have been short-lived, but their legacy continued to set free-thinking minds on fire.

Chapter 6: Constructing the Bulwark of Liberty

The next two chapters are really good, focusing on the New World and then France by way of contrast.

At first, Enlightenment ideas were slow as molasses to reach the New World. Throughout the 17th century people were flogged, maimed, fire branded, and killed for thought crimes like sacrilegious speech, profanity/swearing, blasphemy, and heresy. But once the new ideas reached the New World, Americans latched onto free speech was the great bulwark of liberty. The reason it took off so fast was for the same reason it did in the Dutch Republic. Lack of centralized government is one of the best catalysts for tolerant policies.

A watershed moment came in 1735, when a jury — just barely — acquitted newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger of libel charges against New York’s colonial governor. It did so on grounds that truth is a defense to seditious libel. Cato’s Letters had argued this a decade prior in Britain, and the American colonists loved Cato’s Letters.

Another moment followed in 1737, when Benjamin Franklin published an article, “On Freedom of Speech and the Press”, in which he advocated for free speech as a pillar of a free government. But Franklin later succumbed to Milton’s Curse, by not always practicing what he preached. In 1758 he defended legislative privilege against William Moore and William Smith, who were jailed by a Quaker-dominated assembly for criticism of the military policy in a Quaker-run colony. They were found guilty of scandalous libel against the House, government, and constitution of Pennsylvania. Smith’s publications were ordered to be burned and both he and Moore were denied bail or any writ of habeas corpus. Smith appealed his case in London, but Benjamin Franklin (the agent of Pennsylvania’s assembly in London) opposed him. As for why Benjamin Franklin would succumb to Milton’s Curse, Mchangama writes:

“The assemblies saw themselves as both the people’s representatives and defenders against the executive. Consequently, undermining the assemblies undermined the freedom of the people. The idea that the bulwark of liberty also had to protect the people from their own representatives had not yet clearly crystalized among American colonists. Independence was what forced Americans — finally free to regulated themselves — to consider where they should draw the line between collective and individual freedom.”

Eventually the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) broke out for the well-known reasons, during which time Americans formalized their freedoms into documents. The highlights:

— On July 4, 1776, Congress approved Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that liberty and the unalienable rights of man were self-evident truths — without saying exactly what those rights entailed. But several states were writing their own constitutions and bills of rights, and three of them (Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) protected freedom of speech, press, religion, or all three.

— On November 15, 1777, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, and was ratified by all 13 states in 1781. They guarantee free speech and debate, but only to members of Congress (much like the English Bill of Rights from 1689, and in line with ancient Roman concept of libertas).

— On September 17, 1787, four years after the war was over, the Constitution was signed, but there was considerable debate over it, considering that free speech was barely mentioned in the document. The anti-Federalists pushed for a bill of rights while the Federalists opposed the idea. Anti-Federalist publications were already being stopped from wider circulation by the postmaster general, hinting that the Federalists could well be on the road to becoming the new royalists. Mchangama writes:

“You might say that the Anti-Federalists favored an egalitarian model of free speech — along the lines of the Levellers — with roots in the Athenian concepts of isegoria and parrhesia, while the Federalists favored a more narrow and elitist conception of free speech with roots in the Roman republican ideal of libertas.”

— On December 15, 1791 the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) was ratified. James Madison fused the idea of Athenian egalitarian free speech with Cato’s Roman assertion that free speech is the bulwark of liberty. That ultra-watershed moment was almost exactly 230 years ago as I write this today. It had taken over 2000 years for the Athenian ideal to become resurrected and codified in law. It would take only 7 years to be dangerously undermined by its own architects. We’ll see that in the next chapter.

Chapter 7: Revolution and Reaction

Meanwhile the French were fighting for their own constitution and bill of rights, in the wake of Louis XVI trying to push through a uniform land tax (even for the nobles and clergy who used to be exempt). On June 17, 1789, the Estates General was converted into the National Assembly, claiming sovereignty over France, and the French Revolution was under way. Feudalism was abolished, and the state assumed control over the Catholic Church in France.

On August 26, 1789, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man — a landmark document drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette. It protected freedom of expression, religion, and equality before the law, though all with huge caveats. These rights didn’t extend to women or gays (despite passionate arguments from radicals like the Marquis de Condorcet), though blacks got a fair deal. Lafayette had proposed a draft with no limits on free speech based on what America was doing, but ultimately an “abuse clause” was added in that all but guaranteed Milton’s Curse would rear its ugly head.

The most passionate crusaders for free speech were the radicals known as the Jacobins (the most influential political club during the Revolution), but in the end they fell under Luther’s Trap, let alone Milton’s Curse. At first (in 1791) they insisted that only actions, not words, could constitute sedition. Maximilien Robespierre was the lead Jacobin, who played an important part in causing the fall of the French monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention. Soon he was leading the Reign of Terror (that went from September 5, 1793 to July 27, 1794), executing royal sympathizers, and revoking the freedom of religion he had earlier espoused. 25,000 clergy were deported or emigrated, and 10,000 priests were killed in the Jacobin Terror. In a speech in February of 1794, Robespierre stressed the need to terrorize “the enemies of liberty”. The man who had been a proto-libertarian in 1791 had fallen irredeemably into Luther’s Trap. Not surprisingly, he was executed without trial by a conspiracy of deputies in the summer of 1794.

Thanks to the Reign of Terror, the landmark achievements of the French Revolution were rolled back, and the Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen were revised with the new Constitution of 1795. The document was far more conservative and completely removed freedom of speech.


Not surprisingly, the French experiment caused Enlightened rulers elsewhere to realize that the ideas they had allowed to cultivate in their realms could bite them in the ass. Only a year after the French Revolution ignited in 1789, Russian author Alexander Radishchev published a book that criticized the social and political landscape of Russia under Catherine the Great (1729-1796). Back in 1767 Catherine had instructed the Commission on Laws to create a new legal code with government reforms based on liberal humanitarian political theories — that “all men should be considered equal before the law”, “the law should protect and not oppress the people”, etc. She loved Voltaire and Diderot and took inspiration from their ideas about free speech. Now, in 1790, she moved away from that liberal stance and instructed newspapers to avoid any potentially offensive news about the Russian court, Russia’s allies, and the royal families of Europe. Radishchev’s book was banned and he was exiled to Siberia. She also banned the complete works of Voltaire, with whom she had enjoyed so many correspondences.

Catherine the Great, in other words, was yet another who succumbed to Milton’s Curse, but quite notably as a monarch who spun 180 degrees. As Mchangama says:

“Catherine had been the first ruler in Russian history to champion freedom of speech and the press. She was now also the first ruler in Russian history to erect an official and systematic regime of censorship.”


The French Revolution had serious impact in Britain, not least with Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Paine had helped inspire the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain, authoring Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776–1783). He also fully supported the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, against those like Edmund Burke who decried the Declaration as a “digest of anarchy”. In 1791 Paine blasted Burke in his Rights of Man, defending unconditional free speech and calling the idea of hereditary legislators as absurd as hereditary mathematicians. His ideas went viral, leading Prime Minister William Pitt to strike back viciously at Paine, with a royal proclamation from George III against seditious writings in 1792 — aimed mostly at Paine, but quickly spiraling into a Reign of Terror in Britain: a crusade of mass spying and informing which resulted in the largest number of trials for sedition and treason in British history. Bookshops selling Paine’s Rights of Man were harassed by police, and often arrested, prosecuted, fined, or imprisoned.

In 1793 Paine was officially charged with treason and fled to France, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He was elected to the French National Convention and became allied with the Girondins, while the Montagnards (especially Maximilien Robespierre) saw him as an enemy. He wrote The Age of Reason (in two parts, 1973 and 1795), this time assaulting another pillar of British society, Christianity. He panned the Bible as a useless document teaching rape, cruelty, and murder. No other book has been so frequently prosecuted for blasphemy in England.

Although Pitt’s Reign of Terror (1792-1798) was nothing like France’s shorter Reign of Terror (1793-1794), and though it permitted more dissent than in a place like Russia, it still amounted to a systematic campaign that made any British commitment to free speech seem empty.


You might think that the one place citizens didn’t have to worry about this stuff was in America. The Constitution had been signed (in 1787), and free speech enshrined in the First Amendment (in 1791). But believe it or not, a question mark hung over America’s commitment to free speech around this time. John Adams served as the second U.S. president from 1797-1801, and the events in France had polarized an already divided political landscape. On the one hand, the Federalists (like Washington, Hamilton, and Adams) favored a strong central government, were pro-British, and were increasingly worried that France’s Reign of Terror would infect America. On the other hand, the Democratic-Republicans (like Jefferson and Madison) saw danger in further centralizing the powers of the federal government and had loads of sympathies for the French.

It is to George Washington’s immense credit that as a Federalist president he had been willing to preside over the Bill of Rights in 1791. His Federalist successor John Adams was far less admirable and allowed his true colors to take over. When Republican newspapers started blasting Federalists as closet-royalists intent on reestablishing the monarchy, Federalist newspapers countered that the Republicans were a bunch of treasonous “American Jacobins”, preparing for the ground for an impending French invasion. [The background to that: In late 1796 French privateers began seizing American ships trading with the British, in response to the U.S. having failed to defend France against Britain and the Dutch Republic in the War of the First Coalition (1792-97). The French insisted that the Treaty of Alliance (1778) obligated America to come to their aid, but Congress didn’t see it that way.] Then, in July 1798, Congress passed the infamous Sedition Act, which Adams enthusiastically signed. This document made 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 Congress, or the President of the United States, with the 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.”

In other words, it was now a crime to simply criticize the president, Congress, or the federal government, whether by speech or press. Not even a decade after passing the First Amendment! Says Mchangama:

“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 journalists, editors, and politicians, including a sitting congressman, engaging in political speech and satire — just as the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia had predicted eleven years earlier.” (p 196)

Federalists defended this gross betrayal of the Constitution by reverting to the way of things in Britain. Free speech once again meant protection against prior restraints, but once the words were spoken or written, people could be held to account and punished. The Democratic-Republicans were obviously aghast at this return to the English system they had just revolted against. The whole point of the First Amendment was to make free speech absolute; otherwise it was toothless.

The Virginia lawyer George Hay protested the Sedition Act, arguing that vile speech, though evil, was less an evil than the evil resulting from any law to restrain it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, like Hay, argued forcefully that toxic speech and journalism could be dangerous, but that governmental punishment of what it deemed toxic was far more dangerous.

The consequences of the Sedition Act weren’t as bad as either (1) the Reign of Terror in France, (2) the crackdowns in Russia, or (3) Pitt’s anti-Paine crusade in Britain. They were bad nonetheless: there were 51 cases prosecuted under the Sedition Act (affecting 126 defendants), including 14 newspaper editors and various politicians. Some went to prison, and some newspapers had to fold. One man was fined and jailed just for making a joke about John Adam’s assbone.

And if George Washington had admirably kept his Federalist biases in check when he was president, he was now (in 1799) vocally supporting Secretary of State Timothy Pickering’s attempts to indict journalists and other “seditionists”. As Mchangama says, “The man who had led a revolutionary army against the tyranny of England’s King George now sounded like an American echo of King George’s Prime Minister Pitt.” Washington had succumbed to Milton’s Curse.

The good news was that the Federalists were utterly trounced in the elections of 1800, and under a Democratic-Republican Congress, and Democratic-Republican President Thomas Jefferson, the Sedition Act was allowed to expire in March 1801. The Federalists had tried to crush the Democratic-Republican party, but instead it had multiplied it.

America vs. France

It’s worth pausing to reflect on the differences between France after 1789 and in America after 1798. Mchangama suggests they have less to do with the precise wording of their declarations/constitutions (as some historians have suggested), and more with a nation’s commitment to sticking to that wording. The French were used to centuries of monarchical absolutism, and they had negligible experience to draw on when suddenly thrown into a public sphere of free expression. And with the collapse of the Old Regime, they had no natural seat of authority to keep things on track. Under these conditions the principle of free speech became weaponized by warring factions, who had no concept of how to “live and let live” with political foes. Of course, it didn’t help that the Declaration of Rights allowed for punishing the “abuse” of free speech (without defining the meaning of that), but even assuming the Declaration had been as pure and uncompromising as the American Bill of Rights, I doubt the French could have remained committed to that purity.

Americans in 1798, on the other hand, had so internalized the idea of dissent and free speech after long years of fighting the British. They were thoroughly used to a public sphere where views clashed, arguments were heated, and newspapers didn’t hold back their fire. That’s why the Sedition Act backfired on the American government so spectacularly, whereas the Reign of Terror brought a crushing end to the free speech experiment in France. It’s true that the wording of the First Amendment is uncompromising, but words don’t defend themselves. People do. And people certainly did against President John Adams.

Looking ahead

I’ll cover the rest of Mchangama’s book in due course, but for now let’s list the heroes, quasi-heroes, and pseudo-heroes of free speech we’ve seen so far. The quasi-heroes are those who made important contributions to free speech but either later, or ultimately, fell into Milton’s Curse. The pseudo-heroes fell outright into Luther’s Trap, all but effacing their positive accomplishments.

The heroes of free speech

Cato the Younger
Dirck Coornhert
Baruch Spinoza
Pierre Bayle
John Lilburne, Richard Overton, & William Wayne (The Levellers)
Elie Luzac
John Trenchard & Thomas Gordon
John Wilkes
Johann Friedrich Struensee
Thomas Jefferson & James Madison
Thomas Paine

The quasi-heroes

John Milton
John Locke
Benjamin Franklin
George Washington

The pseudo-heroes

Martin Luther
Maximilien Robespierre
Catherine the Great
John Adams