The History of Freedom

By Hentoff, Nat | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 4, 2000 | Go to article overview

The History of Freedom


Hentoff, Nat, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Since it is unlikely that many Americans have actually read the continuing history of the Constitution, here are suggestions for holiday gifts that are not only instructive but actually entertaining because they're written by authors with a sense of the suspense that attends the fights for freedom.

In "Free Speech: The People's Darling Privilege" (Duke University Press), Michael Kent Curtis - a professor at Wake Forest School of Law in North Carolina - tells the stories of average Americans, white and black, who fought for free speech against heavy odds. The book ranges from the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, to the beginning of the application of those rights to the states in 1868. He then brings the story up to date.

Mr. Curtis, as always, is free of legalese; with clarity and deep knowledge, he shows how our freedoms are nourished more insistently by the people than by the courts.

A valuable accompanying book, also published this year, shows how We the People have moved our highest tribunal. "Freedom of Expression in the Supreme Court: The Defining Cases," edited by Terry Eastland (Rowman and Littlefield), is a blessedly nontechnical array of key decisions that exemplify the warning of Justice Anthony Kennedy: "The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or else it's not going to last."

Included are the backgrounds of the cases and the essence of the Supreme Court's opinions - including the dissents, some of which have indeed eventually renewed our understanding of the First Amendment, from which all our other liberties flow. This book, and Michael Kent Curtis's, should be in the classrooms - not just the libraries - of our schools.

So too should "The Freedom Not to Speak," by Professor Haig Bosmajian of the University of Washington (New York University Press). The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says that no American can be "compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

As Mr. Bosmajian shows - in vivid stories, from the Inquisition in Europe, to the Salem witch trials, to loyalty oaths in this nation - the battles by individuals against state-compelled speech have been among the hardest to win in human history. …

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