Free Expression and Democracy in America: A History

Free Expression and Democracy in America: A History

Free Expression and Democracy in America: A History

Free Expression and Democracy in America: A History


From the 1798 Sedition Act to the war on terror, numerous presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and local officials have endorsed the silencing of free expression. If the connection between democracy and the freedom of speech is such a vital one, why would so many governmental leaders seek to quiet their citizens?Free Expression and Democracytraces two rival traditions in American culture- suppression of speech and dissent as a form of speech- to provide an unparalleled overview of the law, history, and politics of individual rights in the United States. Charting the course of free expression alongside the nation's political evolution, from the birth of the Constitution to the quagmire of the Vietnam War, Stephen M. Feldman argues that our level of freedom is determined not only by the Supreme Court, but also by cultural, social, and economic forces. Along the way, he pinpoints the struggles of excluded groups- women, African Americans, and laborers- to participate in democratic government as pivotal to the development of free expression. In an age when our freedom of speech is once again at risk, this momentous book will be essential reading for legal historians, political scientists, and history buffs alike.


Does democracy require the protection of free expression?

In 1948, Alexander Meiklejohn wrote: “The principle of the freedom of speech springs from the necessities of the program of self-government.… It is a deduction from the basic American agreement that public issues shall be decided by universal suffrage.” Ever since, a steady stream of jurists, constitutional scholars, and political theorists have repeated the maxim: free expression is a precondition for democracy. The people must be able to discuss political issues openly, without fear of governmental punishment, or democracy cannot exist.

Yet, throughout American history, numerous presidents, congressional members, Supreme Court justices, and state and local officials have endorsed suppression, particularly of political speech and writing. If the connection between free expression and democracy were so obvious, so necessary, why would so many governmental leaders act in such a manner?

Consider flag desecration. In June 1904, Nebraska convicted Nicholas Halter and Harry Hayward for violating a state law proscribing desecration of the American flag. Halter and Hayward had sold bottled beer affixed with labels bearing the flag. In defense, they argued that the law violated their constitutional right to “personal liberty,” encompassing freedom of expression. Rejecting their argument, the Nebraska Supreme Court reasoned: “Patriotism has ever been regarded as the highest civic virtue, and whatever tends to foster that virtue certainly makes for the common good.” The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, upholding the convictions in Halter v. Nebraska, decided in 1907. “It is familiar law,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for an eight-justice majority, “"that" the rights inhering in personal . . .

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