Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2000 / 7 Kislev, 5761
In "Free Speech: The People's Darling Privilege" , Michael Kent Curtis -- a professor at Wake Forest School of Law in North Carolina -- tells the stories of average Americans, white and black, who fought for free speech against heavy odds. The book ranges from the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, to the beginning of the application of those rights to the states in 1868. He then brings the story up to date.
Curtis, as always, is free of legalese; with clarity and deep knowledge, he shows how our freedoms are nourished more insistently by the people than by the courts.
A valuable accompanying book, also published this year, shows how we the people have moved our highest tribunal. "Freedom of Expression in the Supreme Court: The Defining Cases," edited by Terry Eastland (Rowman and Littlefield), is a blessedly nontechnical array of key decisions that exemplify the warning of Justice Anthony Kennedy: "The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or else it's not going to last."
Included are the backgrounds of the cases and the essence of the Court's opinions -- including the dissents, some of which have indeed eventually renewed our understanding of the First Amendment, from which all our other liberties flow. This book, and Michael Kent Curtis's, should be in the classrooms -- not just the libraries -- of our schools.
So too should "The Freedom Not to Speak," by professor Haig Bosmajian of the University of Washington (New York University Press). The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says that no American can be "compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."
As Bosmajian shows -- in vivid stories, from the Inquisition in Europe, to the Salem witch trials, to loyalty oaths in this nation -- the battles by individuals against state-compelled speech have been among the hardest to win in human history. As Thomas Jefferson said, "the rights of conscience" can "never be submitted" to the state.
Justice William Brennan once told me that Americans would more fully understand Supreme Court decisions if the press were to follow particularly important cases from their beginnings so that we could get to know the actual people involved -- and what grievances led them on the long route to the Supreme Court. A vital book that does just that in a series of stories free of technical language is "The Courage of Their Convictions," by Peter Irons (Penguin), professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. As Bill Moyers has said of these struggles for justice:
"Reading these stories, you have that sense of the actual person behind the name, one more reminder that the Bill of Rights indeed is for the people."
I have recommended this book to many students -- from the fifth and sixth grade through graduate school. It has the surprises, triumphs and setbacks of a riveting novel. In it, you hear the voices of the very people whose beliefs impelled them to take the Constitution as a shield. Accordingly, the ultimate Supreme Court rulings make you realize the impact of those decisions on not only those who went to the Court, but on the rest of us as well.
Also written with a compelling mastery of storytelling -- far from the density of prose in law journals -- is "The Story of American Freedom" , which presents a panorama of the conflicts, resolutions and ceaseless challenges to maintaining and regenerating the meaning of freedom to Americans.
The author, Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, notes that "Freedom is so central to our political language that it is impossible to understand political history without knowledge of the multifaceted debates over its meaning. ... The story of freedom is not a mythic saga with a predetermined beginning and conclusion, but an open-ended history of accomplishments and failure."
As these books demonstrate, learning history can be an exhilarating experience -- especially the history of why we are
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