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

Eight stars

Lewis offers a brief biography of the most oft-cited portion of the American Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. Exploring free speech and expression through the eyes of America’s political and social evolution, Lewis presents a well-grounded political and constitutional treatise on the subject. Looking first to the evolution of free speech in the United States, Lewis explores it as a reaction to the lack of such opportunity when the Thirteen Colonies were part of the British Empire. Sedition and libel became the most popularly adjudicated actions, especially between individuals and the burgeoning published press. Acceptance of freedom to express oneself in the spoken word and in print was by no means as far-reaching as it is today, even though it was ensconced in the constitutional documents of the country. It took time and an evolutionary process of the courts to accept new and deeply-rooted understandings of these freedoms. Lewis shows how the Supreme Court shaped free speech and expression in the 20th century, trumping some of the early interpretations of the Amendment, and tightening the reaction to laws that sought to impede these rights. Lewis also explores the press angle and freedom to shield sources as a mean of garnering free speech. By not having to openly reveal the names of those who offered information to flex the journalistic muscle of freedom of expression, the courts ruled that the First Amendment worked both to encourage expression and to protect it from government intrusion. While cases and precedent evolved through to the latter part of the 20th century, there was surely a great surge in open interpretation from the 19th century, which appears all but barren in its legal proceedings on speech. Adding personal expression through action into the mix of this biographical piece, Lewis shows how Americans and their varied personal beliefs found refuge in an open interpretation of the Amendment, though time and political fear shaped or suspended some fundamental rights for periods of time. Lewis mentioned the German Scare of the Great War, Japanese internment camps of the Second World War, and racial profiling during the early stages of the War on Terror, all of which were events wherein the Federal Government played on the emotions of the public (and the press) to push through laws or actions that blatantly violated personal rights. It was only the courts, who are reactionary and not proactive in their adjudication, who kept the leash of the US Constitution tightly in hand. Tackling such a political powder keg as the First Amendment, Lewis does present the reader with a well-developed exploration of the constitutional and political foundations behind a right that pushes the boundaries of tolerance and acceptance of all peoples. Succinct, yet detailed enough to make strong arguments, Lewis succeeds in what he sought to do with this tome, that will likely enlighten those who have the patience to wade into the discussion.

Lewis is able to offer his views in an effective manner without an awkward attempt to inculcate ideas. Using numerous legal sources, cases, and historical settings, Lewis is able to present a strong case for the effective use of the First Amendment, while also pointing out when the courts dropped the ball. As constitutional interpretation falls to the courts (though I could open a chasm by mentioning the role the courts have in this regard), Lewis shows how a decision made at one point was reversed or completely contradicted at another point in time. Evolution of opinions and judicial understanding came as America grew, though the political and emotional blinders were clearly evident, perhaps a throwback to support the general sentiments held by the populace. That said, Lewis also shows that the courts do not fall prey to letting public sentiment determine the direction in which the constitutional winds blow. I suspect this ability to effective present strong arguments and cases comes from a long history of exploring the judicial system. This benefits the reader who might not be as well-versed, even if they are eager to learn. Lewis is a decent teacher and makes his arguments transparent, leaving the reader to decide if they agree or have an opinion of their own; the crux of this book in action.

Kudos, Mr. Lewis for this wonderful exploration of political and constitutional arguments. You tell things in such a way that the information flows freely without boring the reader will too much minutiae.

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