Review: Kansas City Business Journal

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!