First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
Batch of new First Amendment books coming soon
Book review

By Ronald K.L. Collins
First Amendment scholar

The history of censorship is the history of a hammer in search of ever more nails to justify its persistent pounding of the human spirit.

Oh, what is this thing we call free speech? Where did it begin, where does it end? And why? And what does history teach us ... from Milton to Madison to Mill to Meiklejohn and beyond?

Such questions find answers in any variety of books on freedom of expression. The answers, however, are seldom categorical. Still, a good book can provide a clearer picture of where we have been and whither we are tending. We need, after all, to study the history of the censorial “hammer.”

If you value such books on free-speech law and history, then you’re going to love what’s coming soon in works by Geoffrey Stone, Christopher Finan, Kenneth Ackerman and others. Each book, in its own way and style, makes a welcome contribution to our First Amendment literature. My recommendation: All are “must reads.”

First there is Geoffrey Stone’s soon-to-be-released War and Liberty, An American Dilemma: 1790 to the Present (Norton, 2007). Recall that Stone, the University of Chicago Harry Kalven Jr. distinguished service professor, is the author of the widely noticed and well-received Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004).

War and Liberty is a condensed (200 pages), updated and more-accessible version of Perilous Times, which was quite well-written for the tome (700-plus pages) it was. Like its predecessor, it examines the history of our free-speech liberties in wartime. While the new volume contracts the lens of its focus, it also expands it in sections devoted to more-recent developments concerning the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s actions. Sensitive to nuance, War and Liberty succeeds in giving its readers the “big picture” in a smaller frame.

Next is Christopher Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Beacon Press, 2007). Finan, who is quite a persona in the First Amendment world, is the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship. He knows how to capture a free-speech historical moment and convey its constitutional meaning with fervor and accuracy.

From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act offers its readers a lively and reliable overview of segments of the unending fight for free speech in America. Finan’s real-world stories range from the 1892 YMCA Suppression of Vice campaign to the Red Scares of the First and Second World War eras to the civil rights and free-speech battles of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the obscenity debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s to our PATRIOT Act world and afterwards. Despite the many dreadful moments depicted in his otherwise lively account of periods in our free-speech history, Finan manages to find reason for hope in the strands of commitment more and more Americans seem to have toward the First Amendment. May he be right: Americans “have made freedom of speech one of the glories of the American civilization.”

And finally, there is Kenneth Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar: Hoover, The Red Scare and the Assault on Civil Liberties (Carroll & Graf, 2007). Ackerman is an attorney at the law firm of Olsson, Frank and Weeda. His last book was Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (2005), preceded by Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield (2004) and The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould and Black Friday (2004).

In Young J. Edgar, Ackerman ably and artfully chronicles the life of his subject — particularly as it relates to the Red Scare in the aftermath of World War I. Hoover was then an assistant to Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who led numerous raids (1918-1921) on alleged communists. In the process, Hoover and his government allies collected 150,000 or so names for his database of unpatriotic Americans, some of whom were among the more than 10,000 arrested. As Palmer’s reputation fell, Hoover’s star rose. He came to head the FBI in 1924 — and held the position until he died in 1972.

In the book’s 52 chapters and 400 pages, replete with numerous photographs and political cartoons, Ackerman brings into sharp focus what Finan addresses from a more panoramic perspective. And there in the details — in long-lost letters, telegrams, government records and what have you — Ackerman makes his mark. And what a mark it is in this sober and balanced account of not only the many excesses of Palmer and Hoover and their like, but also of the real-world dangers they confronted — dangers posed by those who would “secure liberty” by the wick of a bomb.

Other forthcoming books
Veteran New York Times reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis has a new book coming out this winter. The author of the best-selling Gideon’s Trumpet (1964) and Make No Law (1991) returns to the theme of free speech in his next book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: Tales of the First Amendment. Basic Books is the publisher and the book should be out early next year.

Robert O’Neil, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, has yet another First Amendment book in the works. Some of his earlier books include The First Amendment and Civil Liability (2001) and Free Speech in the College Community (1997). The former president of the University of Virginia and law clerk for former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan is the author of the forthcoming Academic Freedom in the Wired Age (Harvard University Press). The book, due out this fall, explores the new role of the First Amendment in an age when universities regulate e-mail, Web sites, and other technology used by faculty and students alike.

And yes, Geoffrey Stone has yet another book coming out. This September Rowman & Littlefield will publish his Top Secret: When Government Keeps Us in the Dark. The book is the first in a series called “Freedom of Expression in America” and grew out of a First Report (see link below) that Stone and Stephen Vladeck prepared for the First Amendment Center, “Government Secrecy vs. Freedom of the Press.”


Famed N.Y. Times reporter shares thoughts on press, secrecy

Edited transcript of Ron Collins' interview joins selected bibliography of veteran political journalist Anthony Lewis' work. 12.26.06

When free speech struggles against fear
By Ronald K.L. Collins Two new books, on free-speech heroes and on J. Edgar Hoover, show workings of censorship and how 'security' too often trumps liberty. 05.21.07

Government Secrecy vs. Freedom of the Press

Ronald K.L. Collins book reviews

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