The book “Free Speech” is a comprehensive history of free speech from ancient to modern times. The narrative traces the history of free speech around the world, examining the views of both its advocates and its suppressors. The author effectively demonstrates how much we have gained by the spread of free speech as well as what we stand to lose if we allow its continued erosion.
He begins with ancient civilizations—“Judging from surviving law codes and writings, the great ancient civilizations protected the power and authority of their rulers from the speech of their subjects, not the other way around”—and ends with a discussion of the current content moderation and transparency problems of social media platforms, which allow the spread of disinformation and hate speech.
Throughout history, the author shows, numerous groups and individuals have diligently worked on the advancement, including Socrates, Johannes Gutenberg, John Milton, Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela. While fighting for their cause, champions have faced leaders who have tried to rein in speech when they felt threatened. These efforts of at suppression have included the banning of books, distribution of propaganda, attacks on the media, and even the imprisonment or murder of journalists.
Today, as we continue to fight censorship, lies, and conspiracy theories abound, and the legitimacy the author notes, “while online expression may sometimes lead to real-life harm, it does not necessarily follow that placing restrictions on free speech is an effective remedy.” At the same time, as the author points out with respect to attempts to overthrow democracy, free speech should be accompanied by “a zero-tolerance policy toward organized threats, intimidations and violence by groups seeking to establish parallel systems of authority.