IT MAY COME as a surprise that in a nation so closely identified with a long tradition of robustly protecting free speech, it took 128 years for the US Supreme Court to grapple with the breadth and meaning of the First Amendment. In 1919, for the first time in American history, the Court was confronted with a series of cases that pitted the demands of patriotism and national security against the Constitution’s unqualified command that Congress “shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Early that year, driven by the intellectual force of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the Court rejected the First Amendment claims of several antiwar dissidents. Yet by the fall, Holmes had changed his mind and together with Justice Louis Brandeis they became the dissenters, extolling the value of protecting free speech even — indeed, particularly — in times of national crisis.
2019 is not only the 100th anniversary of that seminal year — it is also a year in which confident assumptions about the permanence of free speech and a free press are under assault. In short, it is a perfect occasion to examine the growth, development, and future of the First Amendment.
To tell that intriguing story, two of the nation’s foremost scholars of freedom of speech and the press, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, and Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, have gathered 16 thought-provoking essays to explore the “extraordinary evolution in the ways in which the Court has given meaning” to the First Amendment, through “a series of false starts, shifting doctrines, and often controversial and surprising outcomes” and to assess the future of this “puzzling ‘experiment.’”
Divided into four parts, The Free Speech Century examines the nature of First Amendment jurisprudence; contemporary uncertainties and controversies; the extent to which American conceptions of free speech have been embraced and rejected in other countries; and the vexing challenges posed by new technologies, social media, fake news, tribalism, and foreign interference. The editors open and close the book with two incisive dialogues assessing the different and often conflicting perspectives presented in their admirable collection.
Read more at Los Angeles Review of Books