Freedom for Thought We Hate; First Amendment Need Not Be Exclusively American

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

Freedom for Thought We Hate; First Amendment Need Not Be Exclusively American


Byline: Nat Hentoff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Having been removed as editor of my college newspaper at Boston's Northeastern University by the president who thought I took the First Amendment too seriously, I have been a First Amendment enthusiast ever since, including writing books about it. I can now attest that the most accurate and enlivening account of its history and often extraordinary resilience is the newly published "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate" by Anthony Lewis.

Part of the title comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' warning of the most powerful need of the First Amendment, especially in times of national danger and epidemics of speech-suppressing political correctness: "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate." I commend the title and the Lewis book to Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is still trying to get his expanded "hate speech" legislation to become law. It adds extra prison time not for the actual conviction for violent acts but for the "hateful" speech accompanying them as interpreted by police and prosecutors.

Once our republic began, James Madison expected that no American would be punished for his "thoughts." But "hate crimes" laws vigorously and incredibly supported by the American Civil Liberties Union are what Madison feared. If these added penalties for thought crimes, also passed overwhelmingly by the House, get to the Oval Office, the president should veto the legislation.

For many years, Mr. Lewis, twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was a nonpareil reporter and analyst of the continuous First Amendment wars in his New York Times column. I do not understand his removal from that sentry post since that paper now has no regular columnist with Mr. Lewis' legal and First Amendment history credentials.

Justice William Brennan once told me when I was talking about the Bill of Rights in schools around the country, "Tell them stories!" That's what Mr. Lewis does in "Freedom for the Thought We Hate." How many Americans know that before the Constitution and our revolution, "Massachusetts hanged Mary Dyer for her Quaker views"? I would add that before Thomas Jefferson and Madison surfaced in Virginia, Catholics were not allowed to hold office and priests were barred from even entering the colony.

Mr. Lewis also dramatizes why and how "it took more than a century for [our] courts to begin protecting speakers and publishers from official repression in the United States. …

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