Kansas City Business Journal, July 4, 2008

Book gives voice to heroes in the fight for the First Amendment

By Michael Braude

Today, I want to call your attention to an extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path book. It is Christopher Finan's "From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America."

The conclusion of Finan's book sums up why I believe it is such an important treatise. He writes: "We are fortunate to live in a country that includes many brave souls. They have made freedom of speech one of the glories of American civilization."

The book methodically traces Americans' fight for free speech from 1919 to the present.

The Palmer Raids occurred in 1919. Federal agents raided a community center in New York and arrested hundreds of Russian immigrants, mostly teachers and students. This was done as a response to the perceived threat of foreign radicalism after World War I. Many of those arrested in the raid were never charged with any crime.

Decade by decade up to the Patriot Act, the author chronicles our battles for free speech. He highlights many episodes of intolerance but concludes that although the First Amendment has been tested frequently, heroes generally have emerged to protect our right to free speech.

Interestingly, he repeatedly hammers home the need for vigilance. He writes: "Censorship will always be with us. The instinct to ban offending words or images is too powerful to litigate or legislate out of existence."

He says: "The expression creates a new tolerance for ideas that once seemed radical and a new appreciation for those who defended free speech."

I was taken by the author's detailed account of the Red Scare, which lasted well into the 1960s. Then, the government harassed political activists in the civil rights and anti-war movements with domestic spying and other such activities. After this era of McCarthyism, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court instituted meaningful safeguards for free speech and free journalism.

A central theme of the book is that the biggest challenges to free speech in our country have come from the government itself, tending to censor "in the name of national security."

Certainly, the author thinks that was the case with the passage of the Patriot Act. He says that Americans were frightened into accepting the act's repressive measures and that "we only became incensed when the act's Section 215 came to light."

That section allowed our government to monitor what anyone took out of a library or bought at a bookstore. It also prevented libraries and booksellers from mentioning that the feds had visited them.

The author lauds the board members of the Vermont Library Association, who led the successful battle to repeal the offending provisions along with their senator, Bernie Sanders. These odious provisions were dropped in the reauthorized Patriot Act in 2006.

The book also explores efforts to wall off "good art" from "bad porn." He describes the use of the U.S. Postal Service to ban racy novels, information on birth control and the content of books, magazines and movies. Here, he points to the unlikely alliance of right-wing evangelicals who wanted to protect "family values" and left-wing feminists who sought to protect women.

Finan clearly believes that the need to tolerate expression we dislike is essential in a free society and that persecuting people for what they say is un-American.

His theme that I most agreed with is his belief that "censorship is ultimately a transaction between people, and it is individuals who fight it most effectively, often one by lonely one."

I strongly hold that the First Amendment must always be one of our most cherished values.

Hence, I recommend Christopher Finan's thought-provoking book!

Columbia Magazine, Winter 2008

You Can't Say That
by Nan Levinson

From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America
by Christopher M. Finan (Beacon Press,352 pages, $25.95)

In November 1919, federal agents raided a community center in New York frequented by Russian immigrants, rounded up hundreds of students and teachers, and vandalized the classrooms. So began the Palmer Raids, a response to the threat of foreign radicalism after WWI, in which thousands of supposed subversives — primarily members of American Communist parties — were arrested, though most were never charged with any crime.

In October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, empowering the federal government to round up and deport hundreds of non-citizens it suspected of terrorist connections and expand its authority to conduct covert searches and collect information about American citizens. We don’t yet know the extent of these programs because they are secret, but, as in the earlier campaign, people are currently being penalized, not for their actions but for their ideas, affiliations, and words.

With a little historical license, the intervening era could be called America’s free-speech century; during this time, the government, as well as organizations that sprang up to suppress or defend various forms of expression, struggled to determine what the 45 words of the First Amendment really mean. Christopher M. Finan ’92GSAS, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship, has documented these fights in his comprehensive tour of free-speech controversies over the past nine decades.

Finan writes gracefully about the episodes, and he explains their significance with insight and occasional wit. He relies heavily on the work of other writers who have focused on specific issues in greater detail and nuance (a bibliography would have made tracking his sources easier), but if he charts little new territory, he has drawn a valuable map, with routes and boundaries clearly delineated.

Though the skirmishes he describes show America at its most intolerant and silly, Finan portrays the larger war as being won. That’s true to an extent — even with the current retrenchment, the First Amendment is remarkably generous in what it protects — but censorship will always be with us. The instinct to ban offending words or images is too powerful to litigate or legislate out of existence. Thus, Finan’s history serves as a useful reminder that, for all its glory, the First Amendment has been put to the test as often as it has been honored.

Finan organizes his review of this testing more or less by decades, beginning his chapters with an anecdote about a controversy, then circling back to fill in details, historical context, and legal benchmarks. Many of these stories will seem the stuff of familiar headlines: the government swinging from openness to secrecy and back again, money buying legal favor, fundamentalists pushing to substitute church for state, new technologies causing panic, civil libertarians caroming from optimism to despair to internecine warfare, and everybody, it seems, chanting, “I’m not in favor of censorship, but…”

Governments tend to censor in the name of national security, which often includes business interests, moralists, and reformers in the name of propriety and protection of the weak. The reasons remain remarkably consistent, as do the effects: covering other people’s mouths, ears, and eyes, purportedly for their own good. The sticking points are words that make us feel unsafe or that challenge authority — frequently confused — and portrayals of sex. (American depictions of sex have long been a dance of approach and avoidance; our way of accommodating that friction seems to be to excoriate and entice simultaneously — and then feel bad about it.)

Finan begins with national-interest issues, linking the Espionage Act of 1917 to the repression of radicals and immigrants, then moves on to the persecution of labor activists in the 1920s. He dates the birth of the civil liberties movement from this time, charting in detail the founding of the ACLU and the tactics of Roger Baldwin, its resourceful first executive director, who understood that when the government is hostile and the courts supine, enlisting public sympathy may be the only tool available to the politically oppressed.

The early years of the ACLU exemplify the face-offs that still typify free-speech fights, along with the capacity of the fighters to convince themselves that bad legal decisions and rotten laws could have been worse. Finan also sets up the ever-present tension between compromise and radicalism. Supporting popular speech is easy; it’s the offensive words and ideas that put the First Amendment — and civil libertarians — to the test.

Until the 1930s, the courts read the First Amendment as applying only to the federal government. Then came the Depression, which, Finan writes, “created a new tolerance for ideas that had once seemed radical and a new appreciation for those who defended free speech.” Civil libertarians were suspicious of the New Deal at first, as were the anti-Communists who, after the war, hounded individuals in the government, schools, and entertainment industries with loyalty oaths and blacklists. The chill of this second Red Scare lingered into the 1960s, when the government harassed political activists in the civil rights and antiwar movements with domestic spying and other destabilizing activities. But this time, Congress and the Supreme Court resisted, instituting significant First-Amendment safeguards for incendiary speech, student speech, and journalism.

Finan also dives into waves of American culture wars, marked by suspicion of intellectuals and by ever-futile attempts to wall off “good” art from “bad” porn. We learn about the Scopes trial, which challenged the teaching of evolution in schools; the Comstock laws — Finan labels this “the first national censorship regime” — which used the postal system to ban racy novels and information on such topics as birth control; the give-and-take over what can appear in books, magazines, movies, and comic books and on radio and TV; the dustups over public funding for the arts in the 1980s and 1990s; and the backlash against permissiveness stoked by the unlikely alliance of right-wing evangelicals, who sought to protect “family values,” and left-wing feminists, who sought to protect women. He also examines prominent free-press victories that expanded protection for dissenting views by prohibiting prior restraint and making it harder for public figures to silence journalists through libel lawsuits.

In the final chapter, Finan presents his most original material, reporting from an activist perspective on our post-9/11 era, with its extreme government secrecy, reignited fear of foreign influences, and vilification of dissent. Temporarily shedding his historian’s voice, he offers a firstperson account of ongoing efforts to guard civil liberties in the face of a collective national shrug. He notes that most Americans were frightened into accepting repressive measures they might otherwise have resisted and didn’t think the Patriot Act affected them anyway until the infamous Section 215 came to light. It allows the government to monitor what anyone takes out of a library or buys at a bookstore. It also prevented librarians and book - sellers from so much as mentioning that the feds had visited them, a restriction they refused to accept. Their resistance helped loosen the gag and add a little accountability to the reauthorized Patriot Act in 2006. And it minted some of Finan’s recent free-speech heroes, such as board members of the Vermont Library Association, who led the fight to repeal the offending provisions, and their senator, Bernie Sanders, who took their fight to Congress.

Of the post-9/11 crackdown, Finan writes, “As in the past, the greatest threat to free speech came not from individuals or private groups but from government.” Governments do have the power to stifle speech, but so do churches, schools, employers, editors, and sometimes even our neighbors. Censorship is ultimately a transaction between people, and it is individuals who fight it most effectively, often one by lonely one. Finan introduces a host of well- and lesser-known advocates in all their complicated humanity, including the many jurists who upheld the First Amendment with thrilling eloquence.

So maybe the real story of free speech in America is how we came to understand the need to tolerate expression we dislike and to believe that persecuting people for what they say and think is un-American. We still do it, but somebody somewhere can be counted on to rise up to call it unworthy — of ourselves and of our nation. To Finan, that is notable progress. “We are fortunate to live in a country that includes many brave souls,” he concludes. “They have made freedom of speech one of the glories of American civilization.”

Nan Levinson is the author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories. She teaches at Tufts University and is working on a book about the antiwar movement of Iraq veterans.

America Magazine, Nov. 12, 2007

Whence Comes Censorship?

By Gene Roman

Just after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned Americans at a press conference that we are now living in an era in which “we have to watch what we say.”

Since that declaration, I have been searching for a book describing the battles against government censorship. I have found that book in Christopher Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Finan, a historian and free speech advocate, has written a book with enormous relevance for post-9/11 America. As the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship, he describes the battles against government censorship from his professional perch as a historian and advocate for civil liberties. “This is the story of our triumph over government censors,” he writes.

Throughout the book, Finan gives credit to the American Civil Liberties Union for its leadership in protecting political speech during wartime, opposing campaigns to censor books and promoting the rights of individuals to “peacefully assemble” to establish labor unions.

During the 1920s, the A.C.L.U. fought for the rights of miners in West Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania to organize unions against the financial interests of the Rockefeller and Carnegie families. In the same period, they also fought campaigns by civic organizations to censor reading materials held by public libraries. When a coalition of Protestants and Catholics lobbied the New York State Legislature on behalf of a “clean books” bill, the A.C.L.U. and its allies led the efforts to defeat the legislation. The books targeted for removal from public libraries included Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence and Ulysses, by James Joyce. The religious denominations judged these books and those like them to be “sexually objectionable.”

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in New York argued that “we must be governed by decent laws even at the risk of being denounced for seeking to impose the will of a group on the majority.”

The A.C.L.U.’s opposition to this censorship campaign was not automatic. In his research, Finan discovered that the A.C.L.U. had to overcome its own “reticence” about defending sexually explicit material. He also credits the federal courts with helping to expand free speech protection after World War II.

When Jersey City’s Democratic mayor, Frank Hague, tried to block union organizers from distributing leaflets informing workers of their rights in 1937, the A.C.L.U. and the union sued in federal court and won.

According to Finan, the greatest number of legal victories were achieved between 1954 to 1969, when the Supreme Court was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. “The impact of the Warren Court on the right of free speech and freedom of the press has been profound. It expanded artistic freedom, helped ease the abuses of the McCarthy period and encouraged the growth of civil rights.”

The 1964 landmark free-press case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan produced the ruling that debate on public issues must be “uninhibited, robust and wide-open.” The majority opinion was written by William Brennan, a Catholic. Finan argues that these victories for civil liberties were achieved only after a period of complacency that lasted from before World War I to the beginning of the New Deal. “Prior to World War I,” he notes, “Americans took freedom of speech for granted.”

The conviction and deportation of thousands of Americans between 1919 and 1920 by U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (hence “Palmer Raids”) for criticizing World War I convinced Americans like Roger Baldwin, the A.C.L.U.’s founder, of the need for an aggressive civil rights organization to combat government abuses. The de-ported and arrested Amer-icans included Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs, advocates for free speech and women’s rights.

It was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who wrote the majority opinion affirming the government’s right to imprison Debs for making a speech criticizing American participation in World War I. “But the government raids,” according to Finan, “did achieve something important. They raised the issue of what freedoms are protected by the First Amendment.”

The conflict between civil liberties and presidential power would resurface again with the passage of the USA Patriot Act in April 2002. There was growing concern around the country that the federal government would again sacrifice civil liberties to national security, repeating the mistakes made during World War I, World War II and the cold war.

“It had already stirred the ghosts of the Palmer Raids by pulling more than one thousand Muslim men off the street and holding them incommunicado,” Finan notes.

Many individuals and organizations again looked to the A.C.L.U. for leadership and support to combat the warrantless government surveillance of electronic and telephone communications by American citizens.

One of the victories won with A.C.L.U. legal advocacy resulted in a federal court decision that ruled a National Security Agency-sponsored wiretapping program illegal.

“There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers created by the Constitution,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of Detroit. A higher court later overruled Judge Taylor’s decision, Finan points out, “citing an expansive view of presidential power.”

Our constitutional amendments protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press exist on paper; but according to Christopher Finan, the American people must remain vigilant if we want to keep them. “Perhaps the best explanation for the expansion of free speech,” he writes, “is that over the last century we have learned that it will survive only if we cultivate it. Our constitutional protections and liberties depend on the courage of individuals who fight for their rights.”

Gene Roman is the managing editor of the Community Affairs Newsletter at Columbia University in New York City.

Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City), May 20, 2007

History about free speech is a compelling read

By Dennis Lythgoe

"From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act" is a nicely paced history with a list of fascinating characters, starting with A. Mitchell Palmer, attorney general in the 1920s, who led a government round-up of thousands of Russian immigrants and deported 800 of them.

In 1929, books by such celebrated writers as Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and John Dos Passos were "banned in Boston" and other places in the country.

In the '50s, a second red scare gripped the country with Sen. Joseph McCarthy the lead character, spearheading a witch hunt for "communists and queers" that will be forever remembered. So will CBS's Edward R. Murrow for taking on McCarthy for his abusive and cowardly methods.

By the end of World War II, everyone was talking about sex.

In 1953, "The Moon is Blue," a film by Otto Preminger, failed to get the government's Production Code seal of approval. The movie was a mild sex comedy with the theme of seduction but it was still booked into 2,400 theaters.

The author also tells the story of Emma Viets, chairwoman of the Kansas City censorship board, who cut scenes from Hollywood films that were not "clean and wholesome" -- including the shortening of on-screen kisses and excising the image of any woman "in the family way."

During the Reagan administration, there were major efforts to fight pornography, which was displayed in a number of different ways. (Of course, no one realized the biggest challenge would come in the 1990s when the Internet revolutionized worldwide communication.)

In telling a disturbing but important story, the author quotes former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, saying, "It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation's commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad."

No wonder the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920, with the determination of fighting First Amendment battles. Early on, the ACLU defended Socialists, union organizers and such groups as the Klu Klux Klan and Jehovah's Witnesses. Then it was civil- rights crusaders, those charged with releasing government papers, and those accused of violating the product of terrorism, the Patriot Act.

This book is a well-researched and analytical study of the persistent arguments Americans have had regarding the First Amendment. Whatever your position on some of these varied issues, you would be hard-pressed to disagree with their importance.

Christopher Finan has produced a book that is very well-written and pitched to the average reader rather than the scholar of American political or social history.

Library Journal, April 15, 2007

Finan (president, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression) begins his sad tale of modern attacks on the First Amendment with the pre-World War I campaigns against the Wobblies and other labor activists, which expanded into the prosecution of antiwar activists, ethnics, pacifists, and Socialists and culminated in the 1919 Palmer raids. At the same time, leading civil libertarians organized the first of several groups that became the American Civil Liberties Union. Finan shows that the primary focus of government and social repression has always been the "enemy" of the day-Socialists and pacifists in World War I, Communists and foreigners during the first Red Scare, Communists and all those left of center in the McCarthy years, and antiwar protestors during Vietnam and post-9/11. Along the way, unionists, writers condemned as obscene, teachers with unpopular views, and librarians could all become ensnared in the net of oppression. Finan examines the steady expansion of our concept of freedom of speech, as underpinned by the ACLU, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Supreme Court. He defines the battle to protect free speech as an ongoing one in which today's antiterrorism laws are of a piece with earlier suppressions. Based on original research as well as secondary sources, this timely book will be of interest both to general and academic readers. Highly recommended.-Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Lib., Iowa City

Booklist, April 1, 2007*

It’s obvious from this fascinating book that the author, chairman of the National Coalition Against Censorship, is passionate about his subject. From the 1919 anti-subversive raids launched by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, to early film censorship, to book banning, to the red scare, to the attack on comic books, to anti-NAACP legislation, to television censorship, to the Patriot Act, Finan takes us on a censorship tour of the twentieth century, carefully examining how the right to think and speak out has been repeatedly put to the test. In addition to the usual heroes (Rosa Parks, Edward R. Murrow, Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Darrow), the book is full of notorious villains, such as Will Hays, the father of film censorship; Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist whose hatred of comic books changed an entire industry; Joseph McCarthy; and Donald Wildmon, the Methodist minister whose crusade against sex and violence on television garnered worldwide attention. Unlike many commentators, Finan treats the villains fairly, presenting them not as wild-eyed fanatics but as people who thought they were doing what was right. The book is a welcome and much-needed change from the simplistic good-versus-evil treatment this subject often gets. Could be the definitive study of a perpetually complex, contentious issue. —David Pitt
YA/C: Great background for advanced student reports on free speech. BO.
* Starred review

Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2007

Finan (Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior), president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, provides an insightful history of the long struggle for free speech in America. The book is especially apropos for our own age, when, confronted by the Patriot Act, otherwise mild-mannered librarians have morphed into tenacious guardians of civil liberty, refusing to open client records to the FBI. The government has more than once tried to suppress the First Amendment right to free expression of suspected radicals, antiwar activists and labor unionists. In November 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched raids during which 4,000 Americans, mostly immigrants, were rounded up because they were suspected of being Communists. In 1923, Upton Sinclair went to jail for the brazen act of reading the First Amendment aloud on Liberty Hill in San Pedro, Calif. Thirty-four years later, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a City Lights bookstore clerk faced trial in San Francisco for selling Allen Ginsberg's "obscene" book Howl. Finan's tome is chock-full of would-be tyrants eager to tell others what they might say and think. But it's also chock-full of heroes (from the ACLU to those brave librarians) who have refused to be silenced. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior
A life of the crusading liberal and first Catholic candidate for President
From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America
The first comprehensive history of the evolution of free speech in the United States
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From the Critics
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