From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act

A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America

palmer raids
From early film 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.
— Booklist

In July 2005, four Connecticut librarians defied the United States government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had issued a National Security Letter demanding informaton about patrons who had used the library's computers. Fearing that a government search of library records would have a chilling effect on free speech, the librarians contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained an injunction blocking the order. Since when did librarians become champions of free speech?

At the beginning of the 20th century, they prided themselves on protecting the public from “bad” books. (In 1908, an Atlanta librarian revealed that she hid trashy novels in the stacks in the hope that her patrons wouldn’t find them.) It isn’t only librarians who have changed. There has been a revolution in our attitude toward free speech over the course of the last century.

In his book, "From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America," historian and activist Chris Finan describes the growth of free speech that began in response to the abuses of civil liberties that had occurred during World War I. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. provided the keynote for the emerging civil liberties movement in 1919 by declaring that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by a free trade in ideas–that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

In succeeding years, civil libertarians have fought to establish a free trade in ideas. Slowly, battle by battle, they have fundamentally changed the relationship between the American people and their government. “....[T]he censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people,” James Madison said during a debate in the House of Representatives in 1794. This is the story of our triumph over government censors. But, as any librarian will tell you, the battle will never be won. The fight continues.

Winner of the American Library Association’s Eli M. Oboler Award for the best work on intellectual freedom published in 2006 and 2007.