Lewis, Anthony. (2007). Freedom for the Thought that We Hate, A Biography of the First Amendment . . . a Book Review
The viability of any democracy depends upon a system of laws which serve to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens. One of those fundamental rights, found here in the United States and championed in many other parts of the world, can be found in the First Amendment. The storied history of the First Amendment lends not only to its continued relevance in our democracy, but also to the numerous challenges it has faced throughout our history. Understanding the importance of the First Amendment within the framework of its evolution within our society can not only deepen our understanding of it, but also serve to strengthen our resolve to protect its fundamental existence.
Anthony Lewis does a superb job of tracing that history through a concise, yet thorough examination of its enactment and subsequent legal challenges it has faced throughout our history. To understand Lewis’s method for navigating this complex issue requires a better vision for who Lewis was and the commanding role he played in transforming legal journalism. As Adam Liptak from the New York Times points out shortly after Lewis’s death,
“Mr. Lewis brought passionate engagement to his two great themes: justice and therole of the press in a democracy. His column, called “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home” depending on where he was writing from, appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Times for more than 30 years, until 2001. His voice was liberal, learned, conversational and direct. As a reporter, Mr. Lewis brought an entirely new approach to coverage of the Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer, in1963.” (Lipkin, 2013)
Lewis’s understanding of the intricacies of the legal process and its overall effect it has on the development of legal theory gives credence to his analytical depiction of the First Amendment in his latest book.
The book is organized into chapters which outline the progression of the various legal challenges the First Amendment has encountered. Lewis starts with an explanation of the Sedition Act of 1798 and continues his examination of various case law (mostly Supreme Court), which has helped to define the First Amendment within the context of current affairs. He helps the reader understand the evolution of the First Amendment within a legal context by sharing the differing viewpoints of Supreme Court Justices as they heard and decided cases.
What I found most fascinating about this book was just how important a role judicial activism plays in helping shape the laws which ultimately have a direct impact on the freedoms we enjoy here in the United States. While the role of the legislator is essential to our form of government, it is ultimately the interpretation of these laws by judges that define the parameters by which we enjoy these rights. To assume that judicial activism is devoid of personal beliefs or political ideologies is misguided to say the least. It was insightful to see just how prevalent the role of political ideologies and personal beliefs existed in the outcomes of the cases illustrated by Lewis.
Another fascinating aspect of the book I enjoyed was Lewis’s depiction of the role of journalism within the political realm and its task towards expanding upon the need for transparency within government. The historical narrative, which illustrated a time when slanderous comments, regardless of their validity, were considered reckless and punishable under the law, showed just how intolerant we were as a nation to publically criticize politicians. While that intolerance no longer exists today, I must say I am fearful that the pendulum has swayed almost too far in the other direction. The incessant negativity today in journalism does little to foster community or growth as a nation.
Understanding the First Amendment and its storied progression throughout our history as a nation is paramount to understanding its relevance in our daily lives. As our society continues to evolve, it is incumbent upon each of us to become more engaged with the process. That engagement requires that we understand just how our system of laws functions and what role we can play in adding to the functionality of that system. This book not only gave me a better understanding of the First Amendment, but also provided me a framework to better understand the integral role of the legal profession across the political spectrum.