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A balance between free speech and fear

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Without an open debate where unpopular ideas can be expressed, Lewis notes, the public and press simply become cheerleaders for the government: if, as the fairy tale goes, the emperor has no clothes, there will be nobody willing to point out this inconvenient truth. Indeed, Lewis blasts the press for submissiveness after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "[T]o criticize the president in the atmosphere of [post 9/11] fear could seem unpatriotic," writes Lewis, but without the press effectively fulfilling its watchdog function, the public risked being "sold" a war in Iraq based on faulty premises.

As Lewis's historical overview makes clear, fear (of communists, terrorists, foreign enemies, etc.) has always bred official repression. In 1798, President John Adams made "malicious writing" against the US government a crime. Not surprisingly, the law was applied against Adams's political opponents from the Republican Party. The American public reacted by voting Adams out of office, electing Republican Thomas Jefferson president in 1800.

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation making it a crime to speak out against the draft or the government. Even the most innocuous utterances were subject to prosecution. The McCarthyite 1950s witnessed official and unofficial repression based on widespread fear of communism.

The World War I-era repression of political dissent, Lewis explains, allowed two Supreme Court justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, to begin formulating the meaning of the First Amendment. Lewis quotes all the relevant case law, skillfully exploring the evolving interpretation of free speech. In Schenck v. United States, Justice Holmes explained that free speech should be protected unless it creates "a clear and present danger" of bringing about "substantive evils."

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