Freedom of Speech

Mightier Than the Sword

By David K. Shipler

Alfred A. Knopf. 352 pp. $28.95

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Reviewed by

Glenn C. Altschuler


nolead ends A few years ago, Jessica DeVivo, a junior at Clarkstown High School North in New City, N.Y., brought home The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a coming-of-age novel that addresses abortion, homosexuality, and drug abuse. Convinced the book belonged "in the garbage can," not the classroom or the library, Jessica's mother, Patti DeVivo, declared, "This freedom of speech, it drives me crazy. We have to have some standards."

Many Americans agree. Others insist, just as vehemently, that censorship impoverishes everyone. Ironically, as author David Shipler points out, the vast majority of them also maintain that they "fully support the right to freedom of speech" as laid out in the First Amendment to the Constitution and embedded in American culture.

Shipler is a reporter for the New York Times and the author of books such as Rights at Risk, The Rights of the People, and The Working Poor. In Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, Shipler tells the stories of several American citizens enmeshed in 21st-century free-speech controversies. Expressing views that span the ideological spectrum, they include:

Whistleblowers sounding the alarm against warrantless NSA wiretapping.

Conservative ministers flouting the tax-exempt status of their churches by preaching politics from the pulpit.

Reporters risking prosecution by refusing to name their sources.

Islam-watchers warning that stealth jihadists are taking over American institutions.

Political activists who insist President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya.

A Jewish artistic director in Washington who produces plays that skewer Israel's claim to moral virtue.

Shipler is less concerned with parsing legal and constitutional issues than with mapping the frontiers of expression, where "individuals test the taboos deliberately or trip across them unwittingly." Having documented arguments "pockmarked with intolerance," he suggests those who test the boundaries of free speech "by trading in hateful stereotypes need to take responsibility and face consequences in some form."

Shipler acknowledges as well, however, that sunlight "is necessary but not always sufficient." Unfortunately, he leaves us wondering what additional actions, if any, he would support to limit free speech.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American studies at Cornell University.