Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘The Soul of the First Amendment’

The Soul of the First Amendment

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

By Floyd Abrams (Yale University Press, 2017)

The complete text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But Floyd Abrams focuses his little book on the second part only–“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This, to Abrams, is the “soul” of the amendment.

Reading the book definitely helped me to understand what the first amendment does and does not do. It concerns what the government, specifically the Congress,  can and cannot do. It does not prevent private companies or citizens from repressing speech.

Abrams gives the reader some history–which framer advocated for what, and why. Some of them did not think it was necessary to explicitly prevent the government from infringing on free speech. Others disagreed. In the end, the reference to free speech and a free press were included; they might just as easily have been left out, and we would be a different country today. Yet for the first couple of hundred years of the republic, nobody paid much attention to the amendment, and freedom of expression was routinely curtailed and censored. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that case law began to develop based on the rights set down in this amendment. I had no idea that that was so, and I think probably few people do. (N.B., The history part was pretty dense and tough going for me; it isn’t written in legalese, but it’s challenging.)

Then there is a lengthy comparison of how freedom of expression and a free press are viewed by Americans and according to American law, as opposed to how they are viewed in Europe and in other democratic societies (very different). In other societies, other rights may take precedence over free speech, such as Europe’s right to be forgotten, which allows people to request that articles written about them be suppressed if they are no longer relevant, whatever that means, and the control over hate speech. It’s instructive to consider what happens when two or more essential human rights are in conflict with each other.

He nearly lost me in the final chapter, which deals with the infamous Citizens United decision, the one that opened the door to treating corporations as people who have the right to express themselves politically by donating enormous sums of money to political causes and candidates. Liberals such as I am have a kind of knee-jerk negative reaction to this Supreme Court decision, but Abrams argues the case that prevailed (he was actually one of the attorneys who argued it before the Supreme Court), and I admit that at times he was very convincing. It’s useful to consider the arguments on both sides.

(Painfully typed on my tablet in Karpenisi,  Evrytania, Greece)

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