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A balance between free speech and fear

Anthony Lewis follows the history of First Amendment protections.

By By Chuck Leddy / January 7, 2008

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Lewis is among the great American journalists of the past half century. His coverage of legal issues for The New York Times, where he was a columnist for 32 years, along with his best­selling books (including “Gideon’s Trumpet”), have made him one of the most popular commentators on American law.

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In his wonderfully accessible and passionate new book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, Lewis looks at the long history of free expression in the United States. As the author notes again and again, that history has been a troubled one. American presidents, from John Adams to George W. Bush, have reacted to crisis and fear with repressive measures that have shut off dissent and quelled the open expression of unpopular opinions.

Lewis begins with the text of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press....” He examines the purpose of these words, and repeatedly cites James Madison, the father of the Constitution, who believed that a free press and an informed, vocal public would help keep governmental power in check. This “Madisonian” ideal of holding government accountable for its actions, writes Lewis, “tells us why Americans should scent danger when a government tries to stop a newspaper from disclosing the origins of an unpopular war ... or accuses a newspaper of endangering national security by disclosing secret and illegal wiretapping.”

Without an open debate where unpopular ideas can be expressed, Lewis notes, the public and press simply become cheerleaders for the government: if, as the fairy tale goes, the emperor has no clothes, there will be nobody willing to point out this inconvenient truth. Indeed, Lewis blasts the press for submissiveness after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “[T]o criticize the president in the atmosphere of [post 9/11] fear could seem unpatriotic,” writes Lewis, but without the press effectively fulfilling its watchdog function, the public risked being “sold” a war in Iraq based on faulty premises.

As Lewis’s historical overview makes clear, fear (of communists, terrorists, foreign enemies, etc.) has always bred official repression. In 1798, President John Adams made “malicious writing” against the US government a crime. Not surprisingly, the law was applied against Adams’s political opponents from the Republican Party. The American public reacted by voting Adams out of office, electing Republican Thomas Jefferson president in 1800.

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