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Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism First Edition Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393058802
ISBN-10: 0393058808
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By Geoffrey R. Stone's estimate, America has lived up to the ideals encapsulated in the First Amendment about 80 percent of the time over the course of its history. Perilous Times's focuses is on the remaining 20 percent, when, during war or civil strife, the better instincts of the public and its leaders have been drowned out by a certain kind of repressive hysteria. Stone, the former dean of law provost at the University of Chicago, identifies six periods of widespread free-speech repression, dating back to the administration of the nation's second president, John Adams, and continuing through the Vietnam era. In between, two of history's greatest presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, were involved in constitutionally questionable efforts to suppress dissent.

Stone examines these pivotal episodes with a lawyer's attention to detail and precedence and a writer's focus on character and story structure. From Adams's secretary of state, the "grim-faced and single-minded" Timothy Pickering (who scanned the papers daily looking for seditious language) through John Ashcroft on one side, and the cheeky late-18th-century congressman Matthew Lyon and the Yippies of the 1960s on the other, there are plenty of characters enlivening these pages. Given its publication during the War on Terror, Stone's work feels particularly timely and vital. He devotes only a few pages to the post-9/11 environment, crediting George W. Bush for his refusal to scapegoat Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but castigating his administration for "opportunistic and excessive" actions centering around the Patriot Act. One wonders if Stone will some day be forced to update Perilous Times with a full chapter on the early 21st century. --Steven Stolder

From The New Yorker

Stone's history examines America's tendency in wartime to compromise First Amendment rights in the name of national security. During the Civil War, a former congressman, Clement Vallandigham, was imprisoned and nearly executed for objecting to the conflict as "wicked, cruel, and unnecessary" in the First World War, the anarchist Mollie Steimer was sentenced to fifteen years for calling capitalism the "only one enemy of the workers of the world." Each of these measures seemed essential to victory at the time; later, however, pardons were issued. We may one day feel the same about Guantánamo and the Patriot Act, but not all wrongs are immediately remedied. In 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell tried to use the contentious Espionage Act of 1917 (which, largely forgotten, had never been revoked) to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It is still law today.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 800 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (October 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058802
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #734,295 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Barron Laycock HALL OF FAME on November 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In this marvelously readable new work by celebrated academic Geoffrey R. Stone, the author offers up for our reading pleasure a wonderfully pensive, comprehensive and timely contextual look at one of the key elements in the ongoing calculus of a free society; the right to free speech as embodied in the First Amendment. Opening by collaring Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous dictum regarding the social, economic and political wisdom in allowing all sorts and manners of thoughts and premises to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas, Professor Stone delivers a wonderful and sometimes whimsical history of just how critical such allowances of civil liberties are in guaranteeing the continuance of the republic. In so doing, he allows us a more meaningful window through which we can view the current battle-lines organized around civil rights issues emanating from concern over the Patriot Act and other infringements on personal liberties.

His anecdotes are telling, and often surprising, as when one learns that Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of the writ of habeas corpus several times during his embattled administration, or how the government tried groups of dissidents in the aftermath of World War One (including famous intellectuals such as Eugene Debs and the later sixties countercultural "back-to-the land" icon Scott Nearing) for treason for their free speech critical of the war effort. In sum, this book provides the reader with a marvelous compendium tracing the history of the continuing struggle and tension between the need for public order, on the one hand, and the right of individuals and groups to speak their minds without fear of official or unofficial consequences from the government at large.
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Format: Hardcover
Don't be intimidated, as I first was, by the fact that the author was a law professor. Stone tells an important story in an engaging style, blending legal analysis with history lessons and character development - the result is a terrific book that is at the same time educational and thought-provoking. I confess I am a liberal, which is what attracted me to the title in the first place, but "Perilous Times" is not preachy. It is a true examination of the evolution of our relationship with the first Amendment. The good news seems to be that after each bow-wave of hysteria and fear, cooler heads prevail and free speech generally emerges intact. The bad news is that history does, in this case, seem to repeat itself. It's also important to note that the usual cast of towering figures in our history, like Roosevelt and Lincoln, were not innocent in their approach to defending the Constitution when they felt the country was in danger.

The bottom line is that I learned a tremendous amount from this book (and I bought it as a recreational read - I am not a law student) - it was terribly enlightening - and I think we ALL would do well to examine the issues that Stone presents - I believe we Americans don't take the time to have an appreciation for the Constitution really means - I guess we trust our lawmakers to cover that for us - but as Stone points out, that hasn't always worked out.

In my view, a must-read. Particularly today.
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Format: Hardcover
War excites passions.

The nation itself may find itself in peril; thousands, perhaps millions of lives are at risk. It is often thought that dissent during wartime is tantamount to being disloyal. This view puzzles libertarians. They view it as patriotism's highest manifestation.

During wartime, the line between dissent and disloyalty is cloudy. The First Amendment, prohibiting Congress from enacting any law abridging freedom of speech, is put to the test.

Some judges and legal scholars reason the First Amendment is essential to self-government. They argue the First Amendment promotes character traits that are essential to a robust democracy: skepticism, personal responsibility, curiosity, distrust of authority and independent thinking.

"The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market," wrote one of my favorite Supreme Court justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Geoffrey Stone, the former dean of law provost at the University of Chicago, identifies six periods of widespread free-speech repression, dating back to the administration of the nation's second president, John Adams, and continuing through the Vietnam era. He identifies three principals that shape the Supreme Court's understanding of the First Amendment.

1. No government paternalism in the realm of political discourse.

2. Punish the actor, not the speaker.

3. Differentiate between low- and high-value speech.

This is a book about Americans struggling with the responsibilities of self-government during times of war. It is about the presidents who struggled balancing liberty and security. It is about the justices of the Supreme Court who attempted to define the difference.
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Format: Hardcover
As good a book as I've read in I don't know how long. Deatailed, scholarly, and giving credit to all sides, it take the reader throught a very complex and intersting journey and traces the evolution of the First Amendment through critical periods of history. Particularly relevant today, but well worth reading in any event.
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