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Clear and Present Danger - A history of free speech

Jacob Mchangama

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall. Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s website at freespeechhistory.com
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Faced with bloody terrorism democratic Europe has often reacted with tough measures. The UK Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act of 2019 criminalizes expressing an opinion that is “supportive” of a proscribed organization if done in a way that is “reckless” as to whether it encourages support of terrorism. This makes it rather unnerving to jump into, for example, a Twitter thread on the age-old discussion of whether various groups are terrorists or freedom fighters.

In this episode we’ll see how governments in the late 18th century reacted to a different kind of terror: the spread of revolutionary ideas and practice that shook the established order to the ground, including the actual Terror unleashed after the French Revolution spiraled out of control. Dutch “Patriots” took their cue from the American Revolution, using freedom of speech and hard-hitting newspapers to hammer away at the Stadtholder regime. How would the supposedly liberal and tolerant Dutch react when revolutionary ideas hit fever pitch in the 1780s.

In Britain, a pamphlet war between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine unleashed an unprecedented discussion of first principles that energized the lower classes and frightened the government. Could Britain maintain the delicate balance between order and liberty while holding at bay both revolutionary ideas and armies of France?

In this episode, we will discuss:

  • How the Dutch “Patriot” movement used free speech and partisan newspapers to press for democratic reform and tolerance
  • How the pamphlet “To the People of the Netherlands” became a rallying cry of the Patriot side
  • How the Stadtholder regime used repression and ultimately foreign invasion to silence the Patriots,
  • How the French Revolution briefly brought free speech and democracy back with the establishment of the Batavian Republic
  • How Burkes “Reflections on the Revolution in France” unleashed a British pamphlet war for and against the principles of the French Revolution
  • How Thomas Paine ́s reply to Burke - “Rights of Man” - became the world's highest selling book and spread the idea of democratic reform to the masses
  • How Prime Minister William Pitt responded by increasing repression of freedom of speech and assembly
  • How the “Royal Proclamation Against Seditious Writings and Publications” unleashed a witch hunt for members of the democratic reform movement
  • How Tom Paine became an enemy of the state, under constant surveillance, convicted of seditious libel and burned in effigy in towns all over Britain

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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On Aug. 26, 1789, France’s National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article 11 of the Declaration proclaimed:

The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

The French Revolution abolished pre-publication censorship and prompted a flood of political publications. But revolutionaries were deeply divided over where to draw the line between the declaration’s celebration of “freedom” and condemnation of “abuse” amidst a public sphere in which populists used increasingly incendiary rhetoric to sow division and discord. Old Regime concepts of honor, calumny, and libel survived the Revolution and evolved to justify the policing of opinions perceived to threaten the order and authority of post-revolutionary France, increasingly divided by competing factions. Ultimately, even liberals like Tom Paine — an ardent defender of the integrity and benevolence of the Revolution — had to succumb to the idea of political suppression as the Reign of Terror claimed thousands of victims condemned for speech crimes.

In this conversation, French Revolution expert Charles Walton sheds light on the evolution of press freedom and suppression during the Revolution. Walton is the director of the Early Modern and Eighteenth Century Centre at the University of Warwick in the U.K., has taught at both Yale University and Paris’ Sciences Po, and is the author of the prize-winning book, “Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech.”

The conversation will explore:

  • How the French Revolution abolished pre-publication censorship and unleashed a flood of publications;
  • How almost all parts of French society continued to believe in Old Regime restrictions on post-publication censorship;
  • How Jacobins, including Maximilien Robespierre, were amongst the most libertarian proponents of free speech in the early part of the Revolution;
  • How the climate of free speech under the French Revolution compares to the climate during and after the American Revolution;
  • How free speech restrictions became a tool of bitter political partisans;
  • How approximately a third of those indicted by revolutionary tribunals during the Terror were targeted for speech crimes, resulting in thousands of executions;
  • How the French feminist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gouges, became a prominent victim of the Revolution;
  • How the legal restrictions on free speech were tightened after the Terror;
  • Whether the ideas of Rousseau contributed to the Terror;
  • How competing ideas of free speech and mores stretching back to the Enlightenment help explain contemporary France’s complicated relationship with free speech.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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In Nov. 2018, French President Emanuel Macron declared war on “offensive and hateful content” on the internet. Subsequently, France adopted strict laws against both online hate speech and fake news, which is thought to threaten France’s liberal democratic values.

But this is not the first time in history that France has sought to combat supposedly “dangerous content” spread by clandestine networks intent on undermining essential values and moeurs.

When Paris became the capital of the High-Enlightenment around the mid-eighteenth century, the Old Regime monarchy created a Maginot Line of overlapping pre- and post-publication censorship. This system was intended to ensure that good books were encouraged and privileged while bad books that attacked the monarchy and Catholic orthodoxy or morals were kept out of circulation or suppressed.

Just as French regulators today may struggle to distinguish between hate and political speech, it was not easy to draw the line between useful new ideas and subversive philosophy in a society in flux. As Enlightenment ideas took hold and literacy increased, a public sphere emerged from under the shadow of royal absolutism and strict religious orthodoxy. In this sphere, Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot fought to expand the limits of tolerance and free speech, while counter-enlightenment anti-philosophers tried to stem the rising tide of what they saw as godless sedition. Each faction tried to exert decisive influence over the institutions of the Old Regime and land the decisive blow in the battle over the public sphere shaping French mores.

The stakes were high and the outcome uncertain. But perhaps the events of pre-revolutionary France may help explain why even today the democratically elected president of France has taken the lead in fighting the nebulous concept of “offensive and hateful content.”

In this episode, we will explore:

  • How salons, cafés, and an increase in literacy and print created a new public sphere
  • The ins and outs of pre-and post-publication censorship in the Old Regime
  • How censorship and book monopolies created a booming black market, flooding France with philosophy and pornography
  • How a culture of honor limited free expression
  • How royal censors both furthered and frustrated the efforts of Enlightenment authors
  • How a group of radical Enlightenment philosophers challenged religious and moral authorities from the Salon of Baron D’Holbach and through the pages of the Encyclopédie — a bold and subversive attempt to compile all the knowledge in the world
  • How France’s chief censor saved the Encylopédie from destruction and ensured its eventual triumph
  • How a 19-year-old teenager became the last person to be executed for blasphemy in France
  • How French philosophers including Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire failed to formulate a coherent and robust free speech doctrine

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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In the 1760s and 1770s, Sweden and Denmark-Norway shortly became the epicenter of press freedom protections in Enlightenment Europe.

In 1766, the Swedish Diet passed the Press Freedom Act, making Sweden the first country in the world to provide constitutional protection to both the principles of press freedom and freedom of information. In 1770, Denmark-Norway, under the de-facto rule of German physician Johan Friedrich Struensee, became the first country in the world to abolish any and all restrictions on press freedom. Almost overnight, both Sweden and Denmark-Norway experienced a new vibrant public sphere with debate, discussion and trolling.

But in 1772, King Gustav III ended Sweden’s so-called Age of Liberty — and with it, the era of the liberal press. That same year, Struensee lost not only his power, but his hands, legs — and head — as he was dismembered and ousted in a coup that severely restricted press freedom.

But how did Sweden and Denmark-Norway become trailblazers of press freedom, if only for the briefest of time? Find out in this episode where we explore:

  • How Sweden’s Age of Liberty introduced parliamentarism but kept freedom of speech suppressed by censorship
  • How writers like Peter Forsskål and Anders Nordencrantz argued for press freedom inspired by Enlightenment ideals
  • How Peter Forsskål’s “Thoughts on Civil Liberty” was banned but still inspired a new generation of Swedish politicians
  • How the MP and priest Anders Chydenius paved the way for the Press Freedom Act in the Swedish Parliament
  • How Struensee became the man behind the throne of the mentally ill King Christian VII
  • How Struensee tried to usher in Enlightenment Now! with 1800 orders and edicts in 16 months
  • How Struensee eliminated two centuries of censorship with the stroke of a pen
  • How Struensee’s tsunami of Enlightenment reforms and sexual liberation came back to haunt him in critical pamphlets and newspapers
  • How Struensee had to compromise his free speech ideals in 1771
  • How Struensee was ousted and executed by disgruntled nobles who ended his free speech experimentation and cracked down on dissent
  • Why critical writings about herring fishery should never be allowed

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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In his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant declared: “[E]nlightenment requires nothing but freedom ... to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: ‘Do not argue!’ ... Only one ruler in the world says: ‘Argue as much as you please, but obey!’”

That ruler was Frederick the Great — and his influence was not lost on Kant.

“[T]his age is the age of enlightenment,” Kant declared. “[T]he century of Frederick.”

Frederick the Great ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786 and launched a blitzkrieg of Enlightenment reforms impacting religious tolerance and freedom of speech. He was hailed as a philosopher king by Voltaire and gave refuge to scandalous writers who had been persecuted around Europe. But his rule was erratic, and often Absolutism would trump Enlightenment ideals.

In this episode, we cover Frederick the Great’s reign and his attitude and policies towards freedom of thought and the press. Topics include:

  • How Frederick’s Enlightenment ideals reformed Prussia
  • How he favored Enlightenment for the elite, but not the masses
  • How Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Holbach clashed over the merits of Frederick’s enlightened despotism
  • How Frederick offered refuge to scandalous authors such as the French atheist Julien Offray de La Mettrie
  • The dos and don’ts of Prussian censorship
  • How the enlightened Prussian public sphere differed from its French and American counterparts
  • How the enlightened Prussian elite, including Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, praised both freedom of speech and Frederick the Great’s Enlightened Despotism
  • How the death of Frederick and the ascension of Friedrich Wilhelm resulted in a backlash against enlightenment values, including free speech and religious tolerance

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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The Enlightenment ́s emphasis on science, progress, tolerance and rationality not only attracted philosophers. Even absolute monarchs dreamt of “Enlightenment Now.” But how do you combine enlightenment without undermining the traditions and ideas that legitimate absolute rule in the first place? Fortunately for Europe ́s modernizing rulers, some of Europe ́s most prominent 18th century philosophes – including Voltaire - stood ready to praise and legitimize the new winds of “enlightened despotism” that took hold in places like Russia and Prussia.

In this episode, we cover the ground zero of enlightened despotism: Russia. A country whose Tsar Peter the Great, according to Voltaire, single-handedly dragged across both time and place from the Dark Ages and Asia into the 18th century and Europe. Among the topics tackled are:

  • How the benefits of modern science, learning and the fresh air of religious tolerance attracted Peter the Great.
  • How Peter the Great believed in “move fast and break tradition” and combined enlightenment reforms with ruthless suppression
  • How Peter kicked off his modernizing reform with a fashion statement ordering men to shave their beards and women to dress like Parisians
  • How Peter ́s reforms planted the seed for more liberal Enlightenment reforms
  • How Catherine the Great, introduced the idea and principle of freedom of speech into Russia ́s deeply traditional culture
  • How Catherine modelled her “Great Instruction” on the ideas of Montesquieu and Beccaria and corresponded with thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and D ́Alembert.
  • How Catherine reversed her course and tightened censorship
  • How the French Revolution caused Catherine to crack down on radical Russian writers like Alexander Radischev and Nikolay Novikov
  • How Alexander Radischev used relied on “freedom of the press as the great bulwark of liberty” to write the most radical and robust defense of free speech in Russian history.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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data-contrast="auto">After a brief detour into the present, we return to Ground Zero of the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe, with this recap of past episodes and a brief overview of the themes and countries to be explored in the upcoming episodes as rationality and secularization sweep the continent turning tradition and authority upside down. Among others we touch upon:

  • data-contrast="auto">How the early enlightenment resulted in greater religious tolerance
  • Why tolerance did not automatically go hand in hand with freedom of speech
  • How the “Dutch Dark Web” spread radical philosophy across Europe through clandestine printing presses and networks
  • How the treatise of “The Three Impostors” shocked Europe
  • How women enjoyed greater “conversational freedom” to discuss science, philosophy, and religion
  • How erotic and obscene literature made headway across the continent
  • Why European states ́ book production and consumption went hand in hand with their respective censorship regime

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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June 4th, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the bloody culmination of the Chinese government ́s Tiananmen Massacre of pro-democracy students and activists. But all public discussion and memories of the massacre have been erased within China itself. In our second episode from the Oslo Freedom Forum we will take a trip behind the Great Firewall into modern day China where the most ambitious and sophisticated attempt to control the flow and content of information in the history of mankind is taking place. To enlighten us, we sat down with Megha Rajagopalan who is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and Yuan Yang who is Financial Times ́s Beijing correspondent. In this discussion we explore:

  • The structure of Chinese online censorship and surveillance, in terms of scope and purpose.
  • How the Chinese Government applies new technologies like facial recognition and AI to ensure conformity in thoughts and action.
  • How the online public is being ‘flooded’ with pro-government propaganda in order to suppress criticism.
  • How Xinjiang province has been turned into a surveillance police state
  • How Western Companies, who enjoy the protection of the rule of law, play a role in the Chinese censorship system
  • How China is exporting its super charged system on censorship beyond its borders, and why even western liberal democracies may not be immune.
  • How the extensive censorship may actually limit the Chinese government ́s endeavors to control and monitor its citizens.
  • Why there may still be grounds for optimism

Megha Rajagopalan is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in the Middle East. She is the former China bureau chief for BuzzFeed and political correspondent for Reuters in Beijing. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, WIRED, and other publications.

Yuan Yang is a Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times and writes about China’s technology. Before that, she wrote about development economics as a Marjorie Deane intern for the Economist in London. She is the co-founder of Rethinking Economics, a charity that seeks to make economics teaching more relevant to the 21st century.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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Today ́s episode is going to be a radical departure from the chronological timeline of the general podcast so far. I ́m currently in Oslo for the annual Oslo Freedom Forum, organized by the Human Rights Foundation. The Oslo Freedom Forum is a unique gathering of human rights and democracy activists from all over the world joining forces to connect, share ideas and build alliances to strengthen freedom and undermine authoritarianism. To take advantage of the Oslo Freedom Forum I have decided to do a number of Expert Opinions on current cutting-edge topics related to free speech. The first episode will look at why the so-called “Democratic Recession” is mirrored by a “Free Speech Recession,” with Stanford Professor Larry Diamond. In this discussion we explore:

  • The nature and consequences of the “Democratic Recession”
  • Why restricting freedom of expression is the precondition for the assault on democracy
  • Why and modern authoritarian populist repression differs from the totalitarian methods of the 20th century
  • An exposé of the step-by-step authoritarian ́s guide to dismantle independent media, dissent and civil society (meant as a warning not a manual!)
  • Why restrictions of free speech in liberal democracies embolden censorship efforts in authoritarian regimes
  • The consequences of the current American administration ́s hostility to independent media and disengagement from promoting free speech norms
  • Whether social media has been a net benefit or liability to the causes of free speech and democracy
  • Why and how global norms matter, and can help reverse the “Free Speech Recession”

Larry Diamond is professor of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. He has written extensively on democracy and is most recently the author of Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the “Great Firewall.”

You can subscribe and listen to Clear and Present Danger on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, TuneIn, and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Stay up to date with Clear and Present Danger on the show’s Facebook and Twitter pages, or visit the podcast’s website at freespeechhistory.com. Email us feedback at freespeechhistory@gmail.com.

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In this special edition of Clear And Present Danger we leave the past and jump into the present for a discussion on how international human rights standards are relevant to the burning question of where to draw the limits of free speech online". With me to discuss this issue is Professor David Kaye, who is the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. Professor Kaye is also the author of the recent book “Speech Police”. On Oct. 21, David Kaye presented a report to the UN General Assembly that attempts to provide guidance to both states and tech companies on how to safeguard online free expression while minimizing harms.

The conversation delves into questions such as:

  • What is the state of free speech today;
  • Why a historical perspective is crucial to understanding current challenges to free expression;
  • How to reconcile the “schizophrenic” standards on free expression and hate speech under human rights law;
  • How the UN human rights system has developed standards that are more speech protective than the European human rights system;
  • Why the so-called digital era has resulted in more rather than fewer restrictions on free speech globally;
  • Whether tech companies should base their community standards on human rights principles;
  • Whether attempts by European democracies like Germany and France to limit online hate speech creates a risk of “moderation without representation” for users of social media platforms in the US and elsewhere;
  • How to assess Mark Zuckerberg ́s recent speech on free expression at Georgetown University;
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