Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis








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The scope of liberty provided for citizens under the first amendment has been interpreted in different ways over its two hundred year life. Anthony Lewis has written a fine book about this history titled, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. The title captures the current interpretation of the speech that is guaranteed by this amendment. It was refreshing to read about how past attempts to abridge this right were thwarted by Supreme Court actions. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 12, “Freedom of Thought,” pp. 183-185:


The freedom of speech and press promised by the First Amendment is not only external but internal: not only "freedom of expression" but "freedom of thought." The latter phrase was used as shorthand for America's promise even before the Constitution. A few weeks after the Declaration of Indepen­dence was issued in 1776, Samuel Adams, John's cousin, the fiery orator whose speeches helped to set off the Revolution, told an audience in Philadelphia: "Driven from every corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country for their last asylum."

Why do we want freedom of thought, of speech and press? The reasons have been canvassed by philosophers and judges and professors. Professor Zechariah Chafee Jr., whose writing on freedom of speech so influenced Justice Holmes, divided the subject into two large categories. "The First Amendment," he wrote, "protects two kinds of interests in free speech. There is an individual interest, the need of many men to express their opinions on matters vital to them if life is to be worth living, and a social interest in the attainment of truth. . . . "

Through a long history, individuals have struggled against repressive forces to express themselves. Their need to speak, as Chafee put it, may have been scientific in origin, or liter­ary, or political. Galileo wanted to publish what he had proved by observation: that the earth moved around the sun. He was finally silenced by the repressive arm of the Catholic hierarchy at the time, the Inquisition. (The story is mov­ingly told in Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo.) Boris Pasternak, after years of silence during Stalin's terror in the Soviet Union, wrote Doctor Zhivago, managed to have it published abroad, and won the Nobel Prize. But even after Stalin's death, official pressure forced him to renounce his accep­tance of the prize. Anita Whitney rebelled against her so­cially prominent family and courted danger by helping to found the Communist Labor Party of California. Her crim­inal conviction evoked Justice Brandeis's great statement on free speech.

Perhaps there is something especially American about the need for self-expression if life is to be worth living, as Chafee put it. Albert Einstein used the same phrase in describing what he found when he came to the United States. "From what I have seen of Americans," he wrote in 1944, "I think that life would not be worth living without this freedom of self-expression."

The social interest in freedom of thought has been put in many different ways, most prominently in what Chafee called the interest in the attainment of truth. John Stuart Mill, in his "On Liberty" in 1859, laid the philosophical groundwork. He argued that a suppressed opinion may contain a whole or par­tial truth that society needs. Even a false belief is valuable, he argued, because the process of debate about it may test and confirm the truth of the opposing view.

Justice Holmes gave powerful expression to Mill's argu­ment in his Abrams dissent in 1919: Men may come to believe, he wrote, "that the ultimate good desired is better reached by 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." (The phrase "marketplace of ideas" is often used as if it were Holmes's, but he did not exactly say that. Professor Vincent Blasi traced the phrase and found its first use in a let­ter to the editor of the New York Times from David M. New­bold in 1936.)

Unlike many advocates of free speech as a search engine for truth, Holmes was really prepared to risk severe conse­quences. Professor Blasi put it:

Holmes, the old soldier and proud Darwinist, thought that one of the valuable functions of dissenting speech, including speech that advocates violent revolution, is its capacity to gen­erate some of the grievances, aspirations and mobilizations that force political adaptation and transformation.... Proba­bly the most energizing contribution that the freedom of speech can make is simply to leave people free to follow their political thoughts wherever they might lead—free, that is, to think the unthinkable regarding political loyalty, consent, obedience and violence.


Any citizen who becomes incensed by the exercise of freedom of speech in the form of thoughts with which one disagrees, will especially appreciate the wisdom of Freedom for the Thought That We Hate. As we borrow from Voltaire’s Law and Politics, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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