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.

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