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A balance between free speech and fear

Anthony Lewis follows the history of the First Amendment protections.

Freedom for the Thought That We Hate by Anthony Lewis Basic Books 221 pp., $25

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Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Lewis is among the great American journalists of the past half century. His coverage of legal issues for The New York Times, where he was a columnist for 32 years, along with his best­selling books (including "Gideon's Trumpet"), have made him one of the most popular commentators on American law.

In his wonderfully accessible and passionate new book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, Lewis looks at the long history of free expression in the United States. As the author notes again and again, that history has been a troubled one. American presidents, from John Adams to George W. Bush, have reacted to crisis and fear with repressive measures that have shut off dissent and quelled the open expression of unpopular opinions.

Lewis begins with the text of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press...." He examines the purpose of these words, and repeatedly cites James Madison, the father of the Constitution, who believed that a free press and an informed, vocal public would help keep governmental power in check. This "Madisonian" ideal of holding government accountable for its actions, writes Lewis, "tells us why Americans should scent danger when a government tries to stop a newspaper from disclosing the origins of an unpopular war ... or accuses a newspaper of endangering national security by disclosing secret and illegal wiretapping."

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