Thursday, April 17, 2008

Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis

If I wrote "All war is immoral," could I be arrested and sent to prison. In many countries where the military holds power, I could. Even in the U.S., it depends on the time and the place, according to Anthony Lewis in his recent book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.

During the First World War, when there was very little tolerance for dissent across the country, the Montana legislature passed a very repressive sedition law. A traveling salesman who said in a Montana saloon that wartime food restrictions were a joke was sentenced to seven-to-twenty years of hard labor. At the same time, socialist Eugene V. Debs was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for saying in a speech in Canton, Ohio that three men who had been arrested for helping a draft resister were heroic. Did the Supreme Court help Debs? No, it upheld his conviction in 1919 and he served three years in prison. The man in Montana was luckier, as a federal judge there ruled that he and 47 other residents of the state had been wrongly convicted.

Though the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution protecting free speech was established in 1791, the first favorable ruling in the Supreme Court was in 1931. It took the efforts of numerous federal judges and Supreme Court justices through time to finally uphold the right of free speech. Among the heroes in this book are Learned Hand who was ruling in favor of First Amendment rights before most other federal judges, Oliver Wendell Holmes who took up the cause after the First World War, and Louis D. Brandeis whose dissenting opinions eventually swayed the Court.

A point that Lewis makes throughout the book is that our constitutional rights are not protected simply by the existence of the constitution. There have to be brave jurists willing to uphold the rights when legislatures, governors, and presidents try to circumvent them. In making his point, he points out the many attempts of the current administration to brush the constitution aside. The job of protecting our rights never ends.

Freedom for the Thought That We Hate is a quick and compelling read that discusses many aspects of what is protected by the First Amendment. Librarians should read it and put it on display.

Lewis, Anthony. Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. Basic Books, 2007. ISBN 9780465039173

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