On the 11th of April Jacob Mchangama gave a lecture on the history of free speech.
In trying to understand the idea of freedom of speech, people often return to the politics of ancient Athens where oratory was central to the idea and practice of Athenian democracy. The word ‘parrhesia’ – frankness in speaking the truth – first appeared in Greek literature around the end of the fifth century B.C. Since the Greeks, there has been an uneasy relationship between the desire among people to read freely, publish without censorship and criticise openly and the impulse of the authorities to suppress criticism or otherwise control the terms of public discussion.
Nonetheless, perhaps it is possible to identify certain common tendencies in the varied history of free speech. More often than not, it is the masses calling for the right to speak openly and the elite seeking to restrict the scope of expression. Likewise, ‘speaking truth to power’ has been a vehicle for important social changes throughout history, from religious freedoms to the fight for universal suffrage. In contrast, freedom of expression is now understood as a means to marginalise the less powerful – censorship of ‘bad’ ideas is considered to be the right way to enact social change. What, if anything, can we learn from the history and key proponents of free speech? And by drawing on the resources of the past, how can we make sense of contemporary debates and issues – from Twitter trolling to ‘deadnaming’?
Read more about the event here