Harvard Law & Policy Review Interviews Geof Stone

Free Speech: Eight Questions With Geoffrey Stone

Geoffrey Stone is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. From 1987-1994, he was dean of the University of Chicago Law School, and from 1994-2002 he was provost of the University of Chicago. He is chairman of the board of the American Constitution Society. His most recent book is Speaking Out: Reflections on Law, Liberty and Justice (2010). Stone’s other recent books include Top Secret: When the Government Keeps Us in the Dark (2007), War and Liberty: An American Dilemma (2007) and Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime (2004), winner of the Robert F. Kennedy National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Best Book of the Year in History, the Political Science Association’s Award for the Best Book of the Year in Political Science and Harvard University’s Award for the Best Book of the Year in Public Affairs.

What’s the most serious threat today to free speech?

Government secrecy. The capacity of the government to keep information from the public is effectively a means of censorship, without actually restricting speech as such. With a strong executive branch, today we find ourselves in a position where we can say what we want, but we can’t get the information we need in order to speak intelligently.

Last summer, you wrote in the New York Times that on matters of press freedom and government transparency, President Obama has “shown a disappointing willingness to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps.” Among your criticisms: Obama has a bad record on whistle-blower protection, and he has “zealously” applied the state-secrets doctrine. How is that possible with a president who promised to build the most transparent administration in history? What happened?

It’s important to acknowledge that the president has made significant changes in many respects. It’s not as if he’s replicated the principles by which his predecessor operated. But the disappointments come from the phenomenon that once people are in power, they have the sense that, “I’m not going to shield the public from information unless there’s a good reason, I’m in the best position to make that judgment, and I’m a trustworthy person.” That’s human nature, and it’s part of the problem. We can’t have a system that relies on trusting the government.

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