This book is a history of the First Amendment and the twisting, torturous road taken to get from 1791 when the amendment was added to the Constitution to the freedoms we now enjoy due to the inclusion of the amendment. It has been a long bumpy road and getting to the point we are at now was not easy.
The author looks at various portions of the First Amendment, and details various laws and Supreme Court decisions that have affected and changed the way the amendment is interpreted. Along the way, the author looks at what is free speech, how that was determined and many of the attitudes of various Supreme Court Justices. In addition, libel laws are examined as is the concept of freedom of the press.
This book is a well written history, and one that all Americans should read. Not only do many of us take our rights for granted, but we also don't understand the process by which laws develop and are interpreted. The term "activist judge" will have a whole new meaning following the reading of this book. In addition, you will have a much better understanding of how the Constitution works, how the Supreme Court works and how we can all be better citizens.
Anthony Lewis, the longtime columnist and onetime Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, inspired many children of the 60s and 70s to go to law school with his classic book, Gideon's Trumpet. Freedom for the Thought That We Hate doesn't have the dramatic flair of that book, but it is a highly readable, sprightly account of more than 200 years of First Amendment history.
Lewis is, of course, a champion of the First Amendment, and his discussions of the libel case New York Times v. Sullivan, the post-World War I sedition cases, and the McCarthy era show why the First Amendment and its guarantees of free expression are so necessary to a free society. He goes further, holding back nothing in expressing his contempt for President George W. Bush and what Lewis views as the president's incessant efforts to destroy liberty in the name of fighting terrorism.
But Lewis is no First Amendment absolutist. On campaign finance, on judicial elections, and even on advocacy of violence (where Lewis would permit the criminalization of some statements that the Supreme Court evidently would not), he stays away from dogmatism and calls each case as he sees it. It's clear, as well, that Lewis is not thrilled with many aspects of today's popular culture in the wake of the practical abolition of any limitations on expression on obscenity grounds. But on this issue, he's speaking as a bit of a cultural conservative, not as someone who wishes to overturn a whole line of Supreme Court decisions.
As always, Lewis cuts through the legalese and brings dusty Supreme Court cases to life. Highly recommended.
on January 31, 2008
Anthony Lewis's new book, "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate" is a terrific compendium regarding the First Amendment...America's unique codification of freedom of speech. Citing a number of Supreme Court cases, Lewis weaves a narrative with respect to two hundred years of debate about this important amendment to the Constitution, how it evolved and its relevance today. Along the way, we are reminded how, at many times during our nation's history, certain aspects of free speech were abridged, only to be saved by the courts, the Congress and public opinion. Anthony Lewis has presented all of this in a succinct and engrossing way.
Although this is a work about our own nation, Lewis does some short comparisons to the British system of "openness" and finds theirs (unsurprisingly) not as free as ours, especially when it comes to cases of libel. A surprise to many reading "Freedom" is how only comparatively recently the First Amendment has been put to the test. Lewis delves into areas of interest including privacy, libel, the press and pornography. But perhaps his greatest chapter is one on fear...how governments have sought to use fear to suppress public demonstration and thought, while insulating themselves from reality. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant", Justice Louis Brandeis stated years ago, and the author is quick to cite the Bush administration for not adhering to this idea. Indeed, I wish Lewis had taken on Bush even more in this book, but perhaps he has another offering in the works.
"Freedom for the Thought That We Hate" is simply terrific. The author's look into certain Supreme Court Justices... Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Felix Frankfurter, (to name just three) is superb. To top it all off, Anthony Lewis is deeply reflective and writes in a well-paced manner. I highly recommend "Freedom" for anyone who is serious about how the First Amendment continues to be a guiding light for the United States.
"Freedom For the Thought We Hate" is a non-technical overview of the Supreme Court's main First Amendment cases in the 20th century. One chapter deals with press freedoms, another with privacy, another with freedom of association, and so forth. The writing is clear, the book is short, and pre-law students or other undergrads looking for an introduction to this area of law couldn't find a better place to start. But the book isn't "Gideon's Trumpet" or "Make No Law," outstanding books where Lewis picked apart a single epochal Supreme Court case. Here, no case gets more than 4 or 5 paragraphs of text. Doctrinal subtlties get short shrift, as do historical and biographical details. At its best, the book is a stirring defense of free speech. At its worst, it reads like potted summaries of court opinions.
on August 16, 2015
Anthony Lewis cut his teeth writing at the New York Times and spent a significant portion of his career there. In this slim book, he traces the history of free speech from the Founding era through the post-9/11 debates about what is appropriate boundary between free expression and national security, and oftentimes ends up discussing cases he had firsthand knowledge of.
As Lewis points out, in the first decade following the American Revolution and the establishment of the Constitution, freedom of speech was not a significant issue. Most Americans were bound together, despite often extreme philosophical differences over governmental philosophy, and there were few attempts to oppress those on the opposing side. After John Adams succeeded George Washington to the presidency, however, the partisan chasm widened and harsh feelings grew. Allegedly fearing the tremors of the French Revolution and its possibility for chaos here (but really angered at Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican supporters), the Federalists in Congress passed the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 that criminalizes certain types of libelous speech by public figures, and the Adams administration signed off on them. Although relatively small by modern standards, dozens of Jeffersonians were arrested, tried, convicted, and then fined and/or thrown in jail. These actions produced such an uproar that they were soon rendered feckless by the American public, which swept Adams and the Federalists from power. Once Jefferson was inaugurated as president, he pardoned all of those prosecuted under the acts and remitted their fines. As Lewis notes, although the Supreme Court of the United States never ruled on the laws' constitutionality, today they would almost certainly be struck down as a violation of the First Amendment.
In the next section, Lewis covers the persecutions during, and subsequent to, World War One. Unfortunately, this jump forward in time is perhaps my biggest criticism of the book. Although Lewis does give a two-page summary that says there was no federal law restricting speech during this time, he certainly was aware that there were prosecutions during that time for sedition, particularly during the Civil War. Even if he had given a brief summary of whether or not it was the focus of much academic study or discussion in state courts that thereby influenced federal law later on would have been welcomed. However, this is a minor flaw in my opinion. The central figure of the World War One-era free speech trials is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. A thrice-wounded hero of the Civil War, Holmes more than most could speak of what it took to defend or wreck a society, so when he reversed his prior stance of upholding the convictions of communists and labor organizers, it was a strong indication that federal government had gone too far. Lewis also discusses the origins of that famous phrase of law, "fire in a crowded theatre," which I particularly enjoyed. He does offer some criticisms of Holmes, however, noting that certain types of speech may have a cumulative effect that ultimately leads to criminal activity, rather than simply restricting prosecution to immediately approaching events as Holmes advocated.
The next chapters cover the Red Scares of McCarthyism, attempts at suppressing the main speakers of the Civil Rights Movement, the protests over the Vietnam War, and some major cases of the modern era. Lewis notes that recently obscenity has been almost totally removed as a justification for speech restrictions, but I wish he had discussed more what caused society and the Court to change its mind on the issue, and also how governments have utilized new tools, such as zoning laws, to achieve the same effects. In his final sections, Lewis discusses where the future of free speech lies and this is perhaps where I have my strongest disagreements with him. In one part, he discusses the path of Europe and its embrace of laws criminalizing hate speech. While I understand that speech can produce serious consequences, I think it is a dangerous idea to throw someone in jail for what they say about a particular religious, ethnic, sexual, or national group, no matter how crude the language. He also discusses issues of national security and the Bush administration (and now Obama administration)'s efforts to combat terrorist activity. I share his concern that we are approaching a dangerous line in what types of activity we are forbidding and what is a justifiable cause for intruding into someone's privacy, but nonetheless I suspect we will not have an accurate idea of what really went on during the War on Terror for another fifty years.
On the whole, I found this to be a great book for a layman. Lewis does not go into the more abstract parts of legal theory justifying free speech and unfortunately does not deeply detail the history of free speech leading up to the American Revolution. He does, however, provide the most important American cases on the subject and occasionally offers his own opinions (which I respect, if sometimes disagree with) without be pedantic. A great way to pass a weekend.
on January 14, 2008
Mr. Lewis has written a concise, entertaining and informative history of the First Amendment. I, for one, was surprised to learn that the broad First Amendment protections we enjoy today--protections that allow us to vilify our elected officials, burn the flag and insult our neighbor without fear of government prosecution--are largely the product of Supreme Court decisions handed down during the last 50 years of the 20th Century. (Did you know, for example, that prior to 1965, the Supreme Court had never struck down a federal statute on First Amendment grounds? Who knew?)
The author is also careful to balance the protections afforded by the First Amendment against competing governmental and societal interests. Although I do not share all of his views (I'm a bit more inclined than he is to err on the side of protecting offensive, libelous, and seditious speech, even when there are compelling public interests supporting its suppression), I admire his objectivity and his refusal to approach these issues in a dogmatic fashion.
If I have one quibble with the book it's Mr. Lewis' willingness to gloss over the damage done to the First Amendment by the so-called liberal academics who seek to censor thoughts and ideas that conflict with their own under the guise of political correctness. That this has occurred on the campuses of our universities (vanguards of academic freedom?) and that it has been fomented by individuals many of whom took to the streets in the 1960s in a collective assertion of their right to say and do whatever they please, renders it all the more reprehensible and hypocritical. Think I am exaggerating? Read the books written by Nat Henthoff ("Free Speech for Me, but not for Thee"), David Berstein ('You Can't Say That!"), and Arthur Schlesinger ("The Disuniting of America). This, however, is a minor criticism. Mr. Lewis has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the First Amendment. And if we wish to preserve the freedoms it guarantees, we would do well to read books such as these.
on October 23, 2013
Lewis, the author of the terrific Gideon's Trumpet, among other legal books, presents an overview of issues, cases, and trends involving the First Amendment. When I was in school, I always thought that cases involving the First Amendment were difficult, often with more than one party having a compelling argument, but they had interesting facts.
This book is geared to the non-attorney and is not at all technical. It gets into a lot of interesting First Amendment subjects. Not just freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of association, but also such topics as obscenity (including the infamous legal line "I know it when I see it"), censorship, hate speech, flag burning, and campaign financing limits.
It's interesting for Lewis to suggest why the Court might've changed its mind, as it sometimes does.
Unfortunately, the book is from 2007 because I would have loved to have read Lewis' take on more recent First Amendment cases, such as the Citizens United case (applying the First Amendment to corporations).
Overall, though, I would highly recommend this book.
on May 5, 2008
Unless a person goes to law school, it is unlikely that he or she will learn the 200 year old history of the First Amendment...yet is is a fascinating and necessary history to learn. The thesis of the book is that our common notion of what "freedom of speech and press" means in America is not self evident law. In fact, the author explains, our right to criticise the government and its leaders was developed and protected by "activist judges."
Think about the role of activist judges - many of whom are criticised today in certain political circles. Anthony Lewis reminds us that American activist judges used the language that all persons are born free and equal to issue rulings that slavery was against the law as early as 1783. 150 years later it was again activist judges and lawyers who struck down the Espionage Act of World War I which punished speech against the war. So it was only in the twentieth century that the First Amendment was used to protect free speech and condemn a statute that infringed this liberty.
Author Anthony Lewis takes us on a historical journey through First Amendment cases from its beginnings in the constitutional convention to its interpretation by the Jeffersonians and the Federalists to Woodrow Wilson's oppressive statutes, and finally to the more recent cases of flag desecration and the Patriot Act. Mr. Lewis is clear headed and forceful in his history and arguments. As I see it, this volume is one of the top 10 books on the law that I have ever read. I suggest it as a gift to your sons and daughters, to your high school or college students who care about what America means. Highly recommended.
on December 28, 2015
I enjoyed the book. I am reading the history of each amendment separately and thought this was well written. I understand, more in detail, when the term "judicial activism" is used. The First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances", has suffered many bumps and bruises over the years to get to what it means to us today. The book mostly discussed the freedoms of speech and press. Not so much on religion. I do recommend it.
on March 25, 2013
This is one of those rare books that I will order one day in large quantities and start giving away to the people around me. It's been a real inspiration for me last few months.
From outside the US (and I live in Russia) the First Amendment looks like a relic of the Founding Father's idealism, a kind of magical item that has tirelessly protected freedom of speech since the inception of the US. As though a few phrases sufficed to make everyone free. Anthony Lewis eloquently shows that it was not the case. After reading his well researched book you realize what a long path it was, and how many advocates of civil liberties and good arguments it took to get to the present state of the debate. On the bright side, you understand that if it was possible in America, it's still possible in Russia - one day. There was no magic involved. And that is quite an inspiration.
The prose in the book is beautiful and simple in way one could expect from a great legal journalist. I am not a native English speaker, and my own writing is far from perfect, but I do admire good writing, and in that respect reading Lewis was pure joy. All in all, the book is so good that I ordered his previous works right after I finished the last one.
Now that I learned that Tony Lewis died I thought I should at least praise the book that I liked so much. Thank you, Mr Lewis. RIP.