Even noxious ideas need airing—censorship only makes them stronger
Restricting free speech in the name of liberty fuels illiberalism, says Jacob Mchangama of Justitia, a Danish think-tank
“Freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread … where the dignity of other people is violated.”
So said Angela Merkel in a speech to the Bundestag last November. The German chancellor grew up under a communist dictatorship and leads a country where vicious propaganda once paved the way for genocide. So few people have stronger credentials when it comes to balancing the pros and cons of free speech. And she is not the only democratic leader concerned about extremism. French President Emmanuel Macron has worried that the internet is becoming a “threat” to democracy.
Ms Merkel and Mr Macron have overseen laws clamping down on online hate speech and fake news, adding new layers to already extensive limits on free speech. Other democracies—including Britain and Denmark—seem poised to follow. And ever-more restrictive “community standards” by Facebook and Twitter fuel this from the private sector.
But despite the good intentions, they are charting a dangerous course. Fighting illiberal ideas with illiberal laws not only perpetuates illiberalism. It also removes the “steam valve” that lets noxious ideas get diluted in society rather than build up pressure until they explode.
The attempt to rein in the internet in the name of democracy raises problems both in principle and in practice. Removing millions of posts based on subjective criteria such as “hate”, “extremism” and “offense” often results in collateral damage that winnow important discussions in society—especially if the role of censor is placed on tech companies whose rules lack transparency and due process.
Speech that directly incites violence obviously must be prohibited and punished (though admittedly, there can be some gray areas). But when policing speech that is clearly non-violent, as many of these rules do, no group is more than a political majority away from being the target rather than the beneficiary of the suppression of ideas. And the efforts by democracies to limit online expression are regularly imitated by authoritarians.
The arguments for and against tolerating extreme speech are well rehearsed. Yet history provides insights that can help democracies draw the boundaries based on centuries of experience. Despite the unprecedented speed and ease of communication offered by the Internet, the dilemmas faced by current generations are hardly unique.
Moral panics tend to erupt whenever the public sphere is democratised and marginalised groups are given a voice through new technology or new rights. The pattern repeated itself with the printing press, newspapers, telegraph, radio, cinema, television and now the internet.
At such junctures, those who traditionally shaped public opinion fear that the new, openly-expressive “mob” will be manipulated by dangerous ideas and propaganda that will corrode the social and political order. (Is it any surprise, then, that mainstream politicians and legacy media outlets blame social media for “weaponising” free speech.)
From the very start, the concept of free speech has been a perpetual tug of war, usually between the privileged who are willing, within limits, to tolerate open discussion, and previously powerless groups who assert their rights to make themselves heard. The elitist vs. egalitarian conception of free speech stretches back to antiquity. It takes form in the differences between Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism.
In Athens, “isegoria” (equality of speech) and “parrhesia” (uninhibited speech) were cherished values. “Isegoria” allowed all free-born adult male citizens to debate and vote in the Athenian assembly, and “parrhesia” allowed them to be candid and bold when expressing opinions (though there were limits).
The Roman republic, by contrast, was rigidly top-down and elitist. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to speak in popular assemblies and there was no Roman equivalent of “parrhesia”. Elements of free speech were included in the Roman concept of “libertas”, but were mostly exercised by elites in the Senate and magistrates before assemblies.
The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero loved Greek philosophy and oratory, but lamented that Athens “fell owing to that one evil, the immoderate liberty and licentiousness of the popular assemblies”. For Cicero, free speech was the prerogative of the “best men” in the Senate, not the plebs.
This conflict would repeat itself in the early modern era. When Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century established the principle of free speech, they looked to Rome rather than Athens. While they demanded a voice in public affairs, they did not necessarily think that everyone should enjoy such a right.
Voltaire, for instance, fought hard for freedom of the press (though he never wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”). Yet he welcomed “enlightened despotism” and the privileged status of “les philosophes” over the uneducated, whom he felt ”must be treated as monkeys” to some degree.
England at the time enjoyed one of the freest presses in Europe. But it rested on a delicate balance between order and liberty. Criticism of the existing order by radicals and the newly-emerging working classes was punished as sedition. Reforms in the first half of the 1800s removed obstacles to speech, and lowering Stamp Act duties (a tax on paper) boosted newspaper circulation. In 1848 John Stuart Mill wrote that the working class had thrown off the yoke of “paternal” government “when they were taught to read, and allowed access to newspapers and political tracts.” What had once been considered seditious had become a vital part of democratic citizenship.
While these historical examples of censorship are a far cry from today’s restrictions, they are a reminder that an egalitarian concept of free speech depends on recognising the equality of all people, and that one’s right to expression is contingent on a willingness to concede the same right to others, be they minority groups or political opponents.
However proponents of limited speech argue that the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century changes the calculus of tolerance. After all, the Nazis shamelessly exploited the press freedom of the Weimar Republic to spread their propaganda, only to ruthlessly censor their opponents once in power in 1933. But despite its liberal ideals, Weimar Germany was not committed to free speech absolutism. In fact, Germany’s historical attempts to counter political extremism demonstrate the perils in principle and practice of “intolerance towards the intolerant.”
Prior to the Weimar Republic, Bismarck’s Imperial Germany cracked down hard on Social Democrats, banning some 1,300 publications and jailing 1,500 people. Socialists were also hounded after Bismarck. In the first half of 1913 alone, 104 journalists were punished for their writings.
By comparison, Weimar Germany protected freedom of opinion. But it came with caveats. Cinema and pulp fiction were censored after campaigns against “trash and filth”. Although the authorities failed to adequately punish Nazi violence, the Nazis were often punished for their words. Hitler was prohibited from public speaking and several Nazi newspapers, including Joseph Goebbels’s Der Angriff and Julius Streicher´s virulently anti-Semitic Der Sturmer, were frequently banned or their editors imprisoned. Democratic politicians warned that press freedom had become “the most poisonous weapon against democracy”. Draconian measures were introduced to curb political extremism. In Prussia, 284 newspapers were suspended by decree in little over a year, ensnaring liberal ones too.
Not only did this fail to stem the tide of national socialism, it often had the very opposite effect: it played into the hands of Nazi propaganda. Goebbels proudly proclaimed Der Angriff Germany’s “most frequently banned daily.” The censorship didn’t stop huge Nazi electoral gains that helped bring Hitler to power.
Once in power in 1933, the Nazis eagerly exploited these democratic but illiberal precedents to target the opposition press until it could be crushed entirely. And yes, they surely would have censored their opponents anyway, but having the mechanisms already in place was convenient and made it easier for them to attack their opponents for hypocrisy.
Today we are reaching a historic crossroads for free speech. The internet is the new public sphere. But it presents the same challenges as did radio a century ago and the printing press before that. Far-right websites and leaders not only attract readers with their venom, but parlay criticisms, victimhood and censorship into a seductive lure to strengthen their appeal.
The history of free speech suggests that these restrictions are themselves dangerous. It winnows the internet’s initial promise of global “parrhesia”, the uninhibited speech of ancient Athens. If the content prohibitions grow, some of those excluded from the public sphere might be the 21st-century equivalents of history’s suppressed reformers. After all, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were imprisoned for nonviolent protests by the leading democracies of their day. As late as 1979 the editor of a British LGBT magazine was convicted for blasphemous libel.
Free speech remains an experiment in exposing society to new ideas. No one can guarantee the outcome of allowing everyone an equal voice. And all freedoms come with costs and risks. But history suggests that absent authoritarian methods, suppressing ideas empowers them, while giving all human thought an airing is the best way to advance societies committed to freedom, democracy and tolerance.
Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a think tank based in Copenhagen focusing on civil liberties and the rule of law, and the host of the podcast “Clear and Present Danger” on the history of free speech.
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