Poster by Agnes Szucz

This essay, on the history of free speech and the lessons we are in danger of forgetting, was my Observer column this week. It was published 30 January 2022, under the headline “Freedom of speech was too hard won to be cavalier now about censorship”.

If the great campaigners for free speech of the past, such as Baruch Spinoza or Mary Wollstonecraft or Frederick Douglass, were alive today, “they would surely declare the 21st century an unprecedented golden age”. So suggests Jacob Mchangama in his new history of free speech.

It’s a claim that might raise a few eyebrows. This, after all, is an age in which, from China to Saudi Arabia, dictatorial rulers imprison and kill political opponents with impunity. An age in which governments in formally democratic nations such as India use the judicial system to try to silence critics. An age in which more than 1,400 journalists have been murdered in 30 years. An age in which governments across the globe desperately seek ways of curbing speech on social media they consider dangerous. And in which, in the west, there is a constant debate about “cancel culture” and the erosion of academic freedom.

Mchangama, a leading campaigner for free speech, is not trying to dismiss the reality of contemporary censorship. He is suggesting, rather, that in historical terms, we have never been more free to speak our minds. But this leads to a paradox. The very fact that, certainly in the west, we live in far more open societies has led many to be sanguine and dismissive of the threat that restrictions on speech can impose upon us. The very success of historical struggles can obscure the lessons of those struggles.

Historically, the demand for free speech was at the heart of the fight for social justice. From the challenge posed by freethinkers in 10th-century Islam to the abolitionist struggle in 19th-century America, from the suffragette movement to campaigns for liberation from colonial rule, there has long been a recognition that democracy, social justice and free speech go hand in hand and that censorship was a weapon wielded by the powerful to stymie social change.

Today, though, the issues seem more confusing. Much censorship, particularly in liberal democracies, is imposed in the name of protecting not the powerful but the powerless or the vulnerable: laws against hate speech, for instance, or restricting the scope of racists or bigots. And where once the left was clearly opposed to censorship, many now support restrictions in the name of the progressive good. As the left has vacated the ground of free speech, the right and the far right have become encamped upon it. This has further distorted the debate, the cause of free speech coming to be seen as the property of the right, making many on the left even more wary of the idea.

One of the ironies, though, is that many arguments used today to defend speech restrictions as protections for the powerless are often the same as those once used by the powerful to protect their interests from challenge. When the US abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois, a southern newspaper blamed him for his own death, as he had “utterly disregarded the sentiments of a large majority of the people of that place”. A century and a half later, we heard the same arguments in calls for the banning of The Satanic Verses or in claims that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were responsible for their own deaths, because they, too, had “disregarded the sentiments” of many Muslims.

Or take hate speech. In the 1950s, there was a major debate about the wording of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the seminal documents of human rights, adopted by the UN in 1966. The draft proposal sought to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hostility that constitutes an incitement to violence”. The Soviet Union wanted to delete the reference to violence and make any form of hatred illegal. Such a move, warned Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the drafting committee, “would be extremely dangerous” as “any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred and consequently prohibited”. Half a century on, Roosevelt’s warning seems highly prescient.

Instances in which the expansion of speech has facilitated the spread of obnoxious or dangerous ideas are well-documented: from the newly invented printing press giving fuel to witch-hunts in early modern Europe; to newspapers playing a major role in whipping up the racist frenzy that led to lynchings in 19th-century America; to the media’s role in the 20th century in fomenting hatred against Jews in Germany and Tutsis in Rwanda.

Yet we can also see from the historical record that while it is necessary to legally curtail incitement to violence, trying to combat hatred more broadly through censorship can be both ineffective and dangerous. One of the deepest-held beliefs about the dangers of free speech is the Weimar myth: the belief that unrestrained freedom of speech allowed the Nazis to spread their poisonous ideas in 1920s Germany and that restrictions on speech and the suppression of antisemitic propaganda would have stalled the rise of Hitler. In fact, the Weimar republic, while constitutionally supportive of free speech, possessed what we would now call hate speech laws and powers to shut down newspapers. Hundreds of Nazis were prosecuted under these laws. Between 1923 and 1933, the viciously antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer was either confiscated or tried in court on 36 occasions and its editor, Julius Streicher, twice jailed.

Many scholars argue that despite such laws Weimar courts were unduly lenient towards hate-mongers and that judges sympathised with Nazi aims. Other studies suggest that such leniency was the exception, not the rule. Wherever the truth lies in this debate, the primary failure in preventing the rise of Nazism was not legal but political. And this is true of hatred and bigotry today.

We often forget, too, that the victims of censorship are more often than not minorities and those fighting for social change. From Indian climate change activists being charged with “promoting enmity between communities” to British police charging feminists with “hate crimes”, censorship in the name of “preventing hatred” is widely used to target social activists.

We are the inheritors of centuries of struggle against restrictions on what we are able to say. If we forget the lessons of those struggles, we are in danger also of letting the gains of those struggles slip away.


  1. Nicholas Marconi

    I concur with your observations and analysis and conclusion. I would like to add something to this discussion. I used to think that words or more specifically the use of them were completely neutral, that their expression was not a form of behavior or action. But they are as we all know. However, as I read Amartya Sen’s wonderful little book, “Identity and Violence”, I’m reminded of the choice we have of how we respond. Words may help to cloak us with an identity; but when we reify them as to who are, this cloak may hide us and others and in this way we can lose our humanity in the process. It may not be easy to awaken to our responsibility to not misrepresent others and thus imprison them as well as ourselves, but I’m gratified that voices such as yours and Mr. Sen’s help us to stay awake to our humanity. Thank you.

  2. Nancy Hanover

    In this vein, Kenan, have you gone on record calling for the freedom of Julian Assange? He has now spent over 1,000 days in Britain’s “Guantanamo,” Belmarsh Prison. His only “crime” is the publication of documents exposing the war crimes and diplomatic intrigues of US imperialism and its allies. Assange’s record as a journalist is unparalleled in the contemporary period. As world-renowned investigative journalist John Pilger said: “No investigative journalism in my lifetime can equal the importance of what WikiLeaks has done in calling rapacious power to account.” When a full record of WikiLeaks investigative exposures is published, it will span volumes. The persecution of Assange is intended to terrorize all journalists and whistleblowers. For nine years, the US, British and Australian governments, with the shameless support of the media and the establishment political parties and trade unions, have presided over a relentless campaign of persecution against the journalist. This has involved fabricated allegations of sexual assault and personal slander, conspiracy and spying, and attempts to silence and isolate all those who defend him.

    • Nicholas Marconi

      I would like to reply to Ms. Hanover’s comment. I cannot speak to the legality or illegality of Mr. Assange’s “crime” in any formal sense because I simply am not competent to do so. But, I completely agree with her comment that people who seek to make power accountable ought to be defended and supported even if their behavior is deemed “illegal” especially by that power attempting to hide from a greater crime. Is leaking sensitive or classified material a form of free speech? Again, when it seeks to unveil threats to us all or clearly seeks the end of oppression, then I think it is not only an occasion of free speech, but speech of the best kind, in the service of humanity. I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s speech that non-violently spoke to power that helped to break the sanctioned power in the US South that oppressed people of color and the massive leaks of Daniel Ellsberg that helped to end the Vietnam carnage.

      • Nancy Hanover

        Thank you, Mr. Marconi. Agreed, speech of the best kind. The truth.

        Also to your point, Daniel Ellsberg gave powerful testimony in September 2020 opposing the extradition of Assange to the US. Speaking on the significance of the WikiLeaks releases, Ellsberg said, “It was clear to me that these revelations, like the Pentagon papers, had the capability of informing the public that they had been seriously misled about the nature of the [Iraq and Afghan] war[s], the progress of the war, the likelihood that it would be ended successfully or at all, and that this was information of the highest importance to the American public.”

        Characterizing the wars that WikiLeaks exposed, Ellsberg explained, “The Iraq war was clearly recognizable, even to a layman, as a crime against the peace [the first and most important charge against the Nazis at Nuremberg], as an aggressive war.” “[T]he Afghan war was immediately recognizable as what might be called ‘Vietnam-istan.’ It was a rerun of the Vietnam war despite the great differences in terrain, in religion, in language … [T]he basic nature of the war, as basically an invasion and occupation of a foreign country against the wishes of most of its inhabitants, was the same. And that meant the prospects were essentially the same, which were for an endless stalemate which we’ve now experienced in Afghanistan for 19 years. And it might have gone on that long in Vietnam had not truths that the government was trying to withhold been made public.”

        Referring to the brutality of these occupations which the WikiLeaks releases uncovered, Ellsberg said, “I saw for the first time in virtually forty years … since the Pentagon papers, the release of a sufficient quantity of documentation to make patterns of decision making [in the war] very evident, to show that there were policies at work and not merely aberrant incidents.”

        He drew special attention to how the documents had exposed “a very serious pattern of actual war crimes. … In the Afghan case the reports of torture and of assassination and death squads were clearly describing war crimes. I would have, by the way, been astonished to see such reports in Secret level communications [as opposed to Top Secret] in 1971 or 1964 in the Pentagon. They would have been much higher in classification. What these reports revealed was that in the intervening years, in the Iraq War and the Afghan War, torture had become so normalized, and death squads and assassination, that reports of them could be trusted to a network at the Secret level available to … people with low-level clearances.”

    • Nancy, yes, I oppose his extradition, and think that what is being criminalised here is investigative journalism itself. However, I also think that he should have stood trial for the rape/sexual assault charges in Sweden.

  3. Nancy Hanover

    Very glad to hear that, Kenan. It is the most important case today, especially as the US continues madly to foment war–against the people of the Middle East, China and Russia. And the threat of dictatorial rule hangs over not just the US, but Britain, Germany, Hungary and much of the world. Could the contact you for a statement?

    The Swedish charges were completely without merit, a state frameup, engineered primarily by the US. Swedish prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson, after almost 10 years of false claims, abandoned a “preliminary investigation” into allegations of “sexual misconduct,” saying there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed. The findings of the initial prosecutor Eva Finne, issued in August 2010, was: “I do not think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.” She noted that the “conduct alleged… disclosed no crime at all.” Text messages from one of the complainants stated that “it was the police who made up the charges.”

    The litany of “irregularities” in the case included police officers rewriting the statement of one of the complainants without informing her, the intimate involvement of Claes Borgström, a lawyer and politician with close ties to the US state, and the refusal of Swedish prosecutors to interview Assange by video-link or in London, as they had done in hundreds of other cases.

    Most sinisterly, those who promoted the Swedish frame-up derided the suggestion that it had anything to do with the American pursuit of Assange—despite the otherwise inexplicable refusal of the Swedish authorities to guarantee that they would not extradite Assange to the US if he came into their custody.

    The allegations, moreover, were first concocted by the police in August 2010, under conditions where senior US politicians were publicly calling for Assange’s assassination for having exposed their war crimes. The blueprint for the frame-up was later revealed in a leaked email from Fred Burton, a former US intelligence official and chief security officer for Stratfor, a private company described as a “shadow CIA.” In December 2010, he wrote to an associate that the US strategy against Assange was: “Pile on. Move him from country to country to face various charges for the next 25 years.”

    • Nicholas Marconi

      I would like to add one more thing to this conversation. I’m not competent to speak to what you say about how “the US continues to madly foment war-” I’m a US citizen, born in 1954 and raised in New York City. I’m old enough to have witnessed the civil rights movement, the Vietnam protest movements, Kent State, Watergate coverup, and prosecution and so forth in this country. One thing have learned is that all our erudite research, information gathering and subsequent political activism means very little if the message of peace and reconciliation does not take into account ordinary people just trying to get by. The people of this country as misguided( and dangerously so in some cases) as many of them may be do not hunger to “foment” war. They yearn to be seen. What we need is real leadership and projects that speak to the transition away from an economic system that uses money as a form of political power. But the manner in which we do this can’t be imposed by those “in the know.” I don’t have the answers. But I do know what the basis for those answers are; human beings simply recognizing their need for one another. The scariest thought is world wide solidarity, but it is the only hope for our beleaguered species. Thank you and Mr. Malik for sharing.

    • Neither you nor I know the truth about the allegations. The only people who really know are Assange and the women involved. It may be a fit-up. It may not. But I would not want to so easily dismiss charges or rape because they are politically inconvenient. I absolutely defend his right to expose wrongdoing. I do not defend his right to avoid rape charges when we don’t actually know the truth.

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