How free speech saved democracy



July 24, 2022

The book is a historical demonstration of the indispensability of the First Amendment. The amendment reads: “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.” Who could argue against that? The author shows how corrupt politicians, bigots, reactionaries, and educated people who should know better have opposed freedom for those with beliefs they found disagreeable on grounds that those beliefs could cause harm. The author’s history includes plenty of triumphs but leaves the impression that there is always more work to do. During the 19th century, both abolitionists and women’s rights advocates achieved many of their goals, but freedom for Black Americans and voting for women turned out to be only partial victories. The author devotes much space to the 20th- and 21st-century civil rights and feminist movements, which have endured countless struggles and even violence. Despite impressive achievements, both movements still face significant barriers, particularly from conservative legislators. War has always been a disaster for free speech, but the increase in government surveillance allowed in the Patriot Act following 9/11 is small potatoes compared to the situation during World War II, which featured massive censorship and arrests and the internment of Japanese American citizens. “While we live in a country where injustice persists,” writes the author, “the U.S. is a far more democratic country today than it was two hundred years ago or even sixty years ago.” At the same time, the author discusses how progressives and activists for marginalized communities have taken up the traditional conservative penchant for suppressing opinions they find obnoxious, especially in universities and arts organizations. The book is an earnest and timely argument for the enduring value of the First Amendment and by implication, freedom of speech. TW


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