Saturday, May 3, 2008

It's a free country, isn't it?

In 1919, three men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for distributing leaflets protesting American troops being sent into Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. They were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1918 which made it a crime to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the constitution, the armed forces, military uniforms, or the flag. It was war time and the Act was meant to protect the American war effort, but this particular case was a bit of a stretch and it went ultimately to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the original conviction, but a dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes cited the First Amendment, for the first time, as protecting speech and publication, and argued that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … that at any rate is the theory of our Constitution”. Even so, it was not until 1931 that the Supreme Court began enforcing freedom of speech as constitutionally guaranteed.

Anthony Lewis’ Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: a Biography of the First Amendment is a succinct and eloquent account of our nation’s history of struggle with this seemingly simple concept of freedom of expression. As we know, it is not simple and the struggle continues. Lewis presents both the obvious and not-so-obvious conflicts inherent in this guarantee of free speech and a free press and makes clear the complexities and implications of our evolving interpretation.

If you haven’t been to law school, you may find this little book has some surprises in store. You may even find yourself repeatedly sputtering, “But, this is America!” But, then - yikes! - you may discover that your outrage is flip-flopping between support for protection and suppression of this most basic of American values. It is a remarkable document, our Constitution; as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” And, as Thomas Jefferson said, "... whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Be sure you are fully informed on the First Amendment - check out Anthony Lewis - he's at your library!

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