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Clear and Present Danger - A history of free speech

History Podcasts

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




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






Episode 41 - Free Speech and Racial Justice: Friends or Foes?

In May 2020, protests erupted all over the U.S. after a video emerged of a white police officer killing a black man named George Floyd. Millions took to the streets in support of racial justice under the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Most protests were peaceful, but several cities experienced large-scale violence. Free speech was also affected in the process. A disturbing number of incidents of police brutality and excessive force against peaceful protesters and journalists were...


Special Edition - Suzanne Nossel

In this Special Edition, we will zoom in on current challenges to free speech – specifically in the US. With me to discuss this timely subject, I have CEO of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, who has just published her new book Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. The conversation evolves the main conclusions of Suzanne's book including matters such as: Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She has also served as the Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch and as Executive...


Special Edition - Daphne Keller & Kate Klonick

“Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal,” declared the headline of a recent Atlantic article by law professors Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Keane Woods. The piece argues that the U.S. must learn from China in regulating the internet. “[S]ignificant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet,” the authors write, “and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and...


Special Edition - Dunja Mijatović

Since the coronavirus became a pandemic, governments around the world have adopted a wide range of measures affecting basic human rights. This includes many of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe all of whom are legally bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. Most states have limited the freedoms of assembly and movement, some have also limited privacy and data protection ­and then there are some who have restricted freedom of expression through laws or policies banning...


Special Edition - Monika Bickert

The coronavirus has disrupted life as we know it. Billions of people across the world are caught in varying degrees of lockdowns with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. But while our physical world has shrunk, cyberspace remains wide open. And there is no shortage of information as the internet overflows with torrents of data, news, and updates about the ongoing crisis. But in parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization has warned of an “infodemic” of...


Episode 40 - The Age of Human Rights: Tragedy and Triumph

In 2014, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam by promoting secular values on his blog Free Saudi Liberals. Raif Badawi’s fate would have been familiar to Soviet refusenik and human rights activist Natan Sharansky, and many other dissidents in the Soviet Bloc, who also faced long prison sentences and inhuman treatment during the Cold War. Both theocratic and communist states proclaim to be in possession of the “truth.”...


Episode 39 - The Totalitarian Temptation – Part II - Der Untergang

In November 2019 German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a passionate speech to the German Bundestag. Merkel said “We have freedom of expression in this country…. But freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread … where the dignity of other people is violated”. Merkel grew up under a stifling communist dictatorship and serves as chancellor of a country where vicious propaganda once helped paved the way for genocide. So few have stronger credentials when it...


Episode 38 - The Totalitarian Temptation – Part I

In George Orwell’s 1946 work, “The Prevention of Literature,” he wrote: [O]rganised lying … is … integral to totalitarianism, [and] would … continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary. … A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. … Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in...


Episode 37 - Expert opinion: The History of Mass Surveillance, with Andreas Marklund

In 2013 the NSA contractor Edward Snowden sent shockwaves through the American government when he leaked information exposing a number of vast mass surveillance programs providing the US Government and allies access to global digital communication networks. The harvesting of data has been aided by the vast data collection by big Tech Companies like Google and Facebook whose business model relies on knowing more about their users then their users know about themselves. The combination of...


Episode 36 - Expert opinion: Thomas Healy on how Oliver Wendell Holmes changed the history of free speech in America

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected president, gave his first inaugural address. Jefferson eloquently dismissed the logic behind the Sedition Act of 1798, which had sent Republican critics of then-Federalist President John Adams to prison: We are all republicans: we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be...


Episode 35 - White Man´s Burden: Empire, Liberalism and Censorship

During the mass protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 pro-democracy protestors have waved Union Jack flags and been singing God Save the Queen. A clear rejection of the authoritarian political system of mainland China in favor of the political system inherited from the British colonial past based on the rule of law and political liberties including freedom of the press. The symbolic value of the pro-British sentiments of Hong Kong´s protestors would not be lost on Britain´s...


Episode 34 – The Age of Reaction: The fall and rise of free speech in 19th century Europe

The 18th century ended with free speech in full retreat. With the French Revolution, the call for “Enlightenment Now!” was no longer seen as the harbinger of humanity’s inevitable march toward progress. It had become synonymous with radical forces of destruction drowning monarchy, tradition, and religion in the blood of kings, aristocrats, and nuns. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, conservatives and monarchs were firmly back in power — and they had no intention of letting go. Never...


Special Edition - A conversation with Professor David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur

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....


Episode 33 - Counter-Revolution: Dutch Patriots, Tom Paine´s Rights of Man and the campaign against Seditious Writings

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...


Episode 32 - Policing opinion in the French Revolution with Charles Walton

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...


Episode 31 - The Old Regime

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...


Episode 30 - Northern Lights, The Scandinavian Press Freedom Breakthrough

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...


Episode 29 - The Philosopher King - Enlightened Despotism, part 2, Prussia

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...


Episode 28 - Writing on Human Skin - Enlightened Despotism, part I, Russia

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...


Episode 27 - How Enlightening

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: Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless...