John A. Nelson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

Hentoff's ability to speak both passionately and objectively makes The First Freedom a success. Readers are left with two valuable insights, each essential to a healthy tolerance for the role of free expression in our society. The first is that the First Amendment has never been static. The wording seems simple enough ("Congress shall make no law …") but the interpretation and application of those words to changing circumstances has been one of the great challenges to our society. It follows, then, that there will never be a time when answers to questions involving the First Amendment are easy. It is, rather, as Thomas Paine suggested over two hundred years ago, "… those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it." The First Freedom makes us aware that we should not expect an end to the fatigue.

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The second insight is that the history of free speech, and the advancement of ideas in our society, has been a history of unpopular people with controversial ideas. The theme developed early in the book, and supported by example throughout, is that it is in times of greatest danger to our system that the right to speak and print dissenting views is most seriously threatened. People who have expressed minority views during times of crisis have done so at great personal risk. They may not have lived to see their views vindicated. Sometimes, as in the recent Nazi march case in Skokie, Illinois, their views have been repulsive.

In making these points in a book of over three hundred pages, Nat Hentoff chose a format and a style that make the lessons accessible to high school students as well as graduate students. The case study format presents issues of importance to the history of the First Amendment in the context of the time and the people who raised them. Since several of the examples are about students in schools, Hentoff's book is particularly relevant to anyone in education.

Legal issues surrounding free expression are raised through Tinker v. Des Moines, a Viet Nam era case remembered for the utterance of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas that "students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution." The story is worth study by students and teachers, for it raises central questions about the right to express unpopular views.

In Tinker, and all the cases that follow, Hentoff helps us know the people, as well as the legal questions, in the controversies. Before going back to the beginning chapters of the history of free speech, The First Freedom continues with modern examples involving library censorship and academic freedom in public schools. By the time we are introduced to John Peter Zenger and the other early figures in American free speech, we are caught up in the format and style of Hentoff's book. (p. 71)

Of course, the First Amendment was designed to protect more than expression. Specific prohibitions in the amendment are designed to prevent governmental intrusions in the practice of religion. The words establishment and free exercise were used by the authors of the amendment, and their application to very puzzling situations has become the job of courts. Again, Hentoff chooses cases of interest to students when he addresses the subject of religious freedom. The school prayer decisions of the early 1960s were among the most emotional and controversial ever issued by the United States Supreme Court. The First Freedom sets forth the legal rationale of those cases, an understanding essential for those who continue to debate the questions they raise.

Finally, the terribly complex questions of the 1970s and 1980s are raised. The "Pentagon Papers" case was the most celebrated of those recent cases testing the power of a government to prevent publication of matters that, in the view of those in power, threaten the security of the nation. In another case, contrasted to the "Pentagon Papers," the government temporarily prevented The Progressive from publishing information on the construction of a hydrogen bomb.

Hentoff introduces readers to new trends in the constant evolution of the First Amendment. In the Progressive case, for example, government lawyers argued that there is a difference between "political" and "technical" speech, the latter being excluded from protection by the Constitution. Only after months of litigation and censorship, when it was pointed out that the material being suppressed was available to the public on the Los Alamos library shelves, was the case against the Progressive abandoned.

In the highly emotional area of obscenity, new trends may also be found. The Supreme Court now appears ready to distinguish between "serious" speech and speech of no "redeeming social importance."

Of particular interest to students of journalism are cases involving a reporter's right to protect sources and the recent "shield law" disputes. Nowhere is the balance of interests more difficult than in these cases. Two closely held sets of interests, those of a free press and those of defendants in criminal trials, are at odds. Hentoff appears to side with the reporters, but he provides sufficient insight into the merits of both sides to provide readers with materials to reach informed conclusions of their own.

We should be aware of trends in First Amendment interpretation. We should know the history of free expression in America. Nat Hentoff's book ably puts into perspective the evolutionary process that is our First Amendment. The First Freedom is about the free exchange of ideas, a subject of considerable importance to teachers and students. It should be read by everyone. (p. 72)

John A. Nelson, "Too Good To Miss" (copyright © 1982 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in English Journal, Vol. 71, No. 4, April, 1982, pp. 71-2.

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