Free speech in America is at a troubling impasse. At one extreme, the champions of free speech embrace the ultra-libertarian view that every limit on expression, no matter how benign, is a fatal step toward tyranny. At the other, the custodians of public virtue deploy star-chamber methods to enforce an ideology, congealed from political correctness, that grows ever more invasive, intolerant, and inhuman. Can any free nation, especially one as big and diverse as the United States, sustain a tradition of free speech? 

In this online seminar, fellows will situate the classic debate over free speech in both the contemporary landscape and the broader historical context. Fellows will explore the challenge of preserving the Western ideal of free speech in a world where democratic governments seem paralyzed by political and cultural polarization; powerful tech companies have become unwilling content regulators; and authoritarian regimes deploy digital technology for surveillance, censorship, and propaganda.

Image: George Caleb Bingham, Stump Speaking, 1853-54


Martha Bayles on Taming the Furies: Free Speech in a Fractured Republic


Martha Bayles

Martha Bayles is an Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston College, where she teaches a year-long course titled, “From Homer to Dante” and various senior seminars. Her research centers around popular culture and cultural history. She has previously served as a lecturer at Harvard University and Claremont McKenna College.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Vincent Blasi, “Milton’s Areopagitica and the Modern First Amendment,” Ralph Gregory Elliot First Amendment Lecture, Yale Law School (1995)
  • John Stuart Mill, Ch. 2 (abridged), On Liberty (Project Gutenberg, 1857)


  • Frederick Schauer, “Free Speech and the Argument from Democracy,” Nomos, Vol. 25 (American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, 1983), pp. 241–56
  • Sophie Rosenfeld, Ch. 1, “The Problem of Democratic Truth,” Democracy and Truth (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)
  • Werner J. Patzelt, “Populism—and How to Handle It,” eds. Claudia Crawford, et al., Populism as a Common Challenge (Konrad-Adenaeuer-Stiftung e.V., 2018)


  • Harry M. Clor, “The Case for Public Morality,” Public Morality and Liberal Society (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996)
  • Tim Alberta, “How the GOP Gave Up on Porn,” Politico, November 11, 2018
  • Tarleton Gillespie, “Content Moderation, AI, and the Question of Scale,” Big Data and Society (2020)
  • Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, The Cleaners (2018) (Available for rent on Vimeo)


  • Ron Anderson, “The Panopticon is Already Here,” The Atlantic, September 2020
  • Xiao Qiang, “President Xi’s Surveillance State,” Journal of Democracy (National Endowment for Democracy, 2020)
  • Robin Barnwell and Gesbeen Mohammad, China Undercover, PBS, April 7, 2020


  • Matthew B. Crawford, “Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy,” American Affairs, Summer 2019
  • Timothy Garton Ash, “Ch. 9: Icebergs,” Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 348–69
  • Laura DeNardis, The Internet in Everything, Quello Center, Michigan State University, 2019

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