Review: Booklist

From the palmer raids to the Patriot Act
A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America

Booklist, 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