Sometimes the First Amendment gets a bad name from some of the litigants who aggressively assert their free-speech rights, such as the funeral protesters of the Westboro Baptist Church or the flag burners or the pornographers. But freedom of speech has been a positive force for social change.

Free-speech historian Christopher M. Finan explores this phenomenon in his highly readable new book, How Free Speech Saved Democracy: The Untold History of How the First Amendment Became an Essential Tool for Securing Liberty and Social Justice.

He compellingly tells the stories of abolitionists who exercised their free-speech rights to battle the awful practice of slavery. The brilliant John Quincy Adams’ battle to end the “gag rule” on ending slavery petitions in the U.S. House of Representatives, the activities of Anti-Slavery Societies, and the death of abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy are recounted. As Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist, said, “The right of free speech is a very special one, especially to the oppressed.” 

Finan also describes the women’s-rights and workers’-rights movements and how free speech was the essential tool to force people to examine underlying iniquities and inequities in society. Without the advocacy efforts of women such as Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul, there would not have been a 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

These movements originated in the 19th century and carried into the early 20th century, when they ran into what Finan calls “a civil liberties meltdown” after the United States entered World War I. Dissent came to be seen as extremely unpatriotic, as Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These acts suppressed many who advocated for change. Interestingly, Finan points out that most of the ACLU’s early cases involved suppression of labor-related speech. 

Finan weaves together interesting anecdotes involving many free-speech groups and litigants, touching on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the civil rights protesters of the 1950s and 1960s, Vietnam-era protests, and others.

He may be at his best when describing censorship of books and literature — perhaps not surprising, given his heroic efforts and leadership as head of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Anyone interested in freedom of speech should read this valuable book.  It is a veritable treasure trove of useful information and engaging stories. 

And, as Finan warns toward the end of his book, “the battle for free speech continues.” 

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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).