In the 1960 movie version of the H.G. Wells novella The Time Machine, the Time Traveler returns from 19th-century England to the futuristic society he has rescued from evil. Before leaving, he retrieves several books from his library with which he hopes to rebuild a shattered society. A modern-day time traveler, believing in the essential importance of free speech, might well consider Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, by Geoffrey Stone, an essential book for future libraries.
Stone -- the Harry Kalven Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago -- is one of America's leading First Amendment scholars. At this perilous time in the United States, when twin wars on terrorism and Iraq raise important constitutional issues, Stone provides a perceptive discussion of the First Amendment. His book combines history, legal scholarship, and advocacy in a way that fully details the 200-year tension in America between liberty and security.
During wartime, dissent is often equated with disloyalty. For those who believe the essence of a democratic society is robust public debate, this viewpoint is puzzling. Yet the challenge to our way of life brought on by an enemy attack generates emotions that demand allegiance to our government, making it difficult to distinguish dissent and disloyalty. Stone asserts that America has a long, sad history of overreaction to the perceived dangers of wartime, arguing that time and again Americans have suppressed dissent and imprisoned dissenters but later regretted their decision. Perilous Times explains how we can break this pattern as we look to the future.
Stone focuses on six periods in American history when the government sought to punish individuals for criticizing their government. Actual armed conflict during the Civil War, world wars, and Vietnam War precipitated government action to stifle dissent. But America's first encounter with restriction of First Amendment freedoms occurred while the nation was at peace and the ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were partisan and exaggerated the threat of war with France. Congressman Matthew Lyon was the first to be prosecuted under the law. In addition, several prominent Republican newspaper editors were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. The act expired on March 3, 1801, the last day of John Adams' presidency, but not before it had caused enough dissent to alienate a majority of voters against the Federalists.
Sadly, the pattern of conduct established by the Alien and Sedition Act would be followed by future administrations of all political persuasions. During the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, the government reacted to dissent by suppression it later acknowledged was mistaken. Americans have been slow to realize that erasing "dangerous" views from public debate undermines free speech. Some would say that the current administration's Patriot Act is just the latest example of fear producing policy. Perilous Times is must reading for every citizen who cares deeply about protecting the First Amendment.
Although the book is light on discussion about the war on terror and the Patriot Act, the historical lessons learned by previous encounters with First Amendment restrictions can serve as a valuable lesson for those willing to reflect on our history. We must remain watchful and demand that our government proceed truthfully and cautiously in the face of attempts to limit our freedoms. At a minimum, members of Congress should read laws such as the Patriot Act before voting on their passage. We must do so to protect a freedom critical, as Justice Louis Brandeis observed, to "the discovery and spread of political truth": the "freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think."