New Book Examines How The 1st Amendment Sits At The Forefront In An Election Year

Oct 24, 2020
Originally published on October 26, 2020 12:44 am

The First Amendment — and its protection of free speech — may be the best-known and, possibly, the most cherished of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

But there is also a long-running battle over what the limits of free speech should be. And this election year, with its heated and sometimes hateful rhetoric — and challenges to the tech companies to referee it all — is certainly placing that battle at the forefront.

That's just one reason editor and columnist Ellis Cose's latest book — The Short Life And Curious Death Of Free Speech in America — is so timely.

Interview Highlights

On why he titled the book 'the short life' of freedom of speech

The First Amendment by definition is the First Amendment, you know? It was the First Amendment to the Constitution. It was ratified in 1791. So it's been with us almost since we have had a constitution. And the assumption that most people have is that it's just a right that's always been there, that's always been respected and that we've always enjoyed as Americans. But that's not quite true. In 1798, we have the Alien and Sedition Acts, which in effect nullify the First Amendment. It made it illegal to criticize the then-Federalist government. It made it illegal to speak out and to do the things that we think are routine to do now.

On the relative newness of the concept of freedom of speech

It grew directly out of World War I. When the United States government got involved in the war, we immediately passed a couple of new laws. One was the Espionage Act, the other was the Sedition Act, which was an amendment to the Espionage Act. And what they — what those laws did, as the original Alien and Sedition Acts did, was to essentially make it illegal to criticize the government.

And so you had any number of individuals and institutions who were jailed because they were critical of the draft. And you had a number of activists, you know, including the group that later became — came together as the ACLU, who said: 'Wait a minute. Don't we have freedom of speech in this country? Can't we speak out?' And so, slowly, we began to come up with a modern conception of the First Amendment.

On president's policies threatening freedom of speech

In many respects, I mean, at least Obama and George Bush had respect for the Constitution, and they understood what it meant. But when you go into the current administration, you have an administration that doesn't even believe in truth, that does not believe in constitutional process and does not believe in rights at all, as generally understood. And what we now have [is] an entire government apparatus designed to foster falsehoods, and that endangers the whole idea that our country is based on, which is that we can get to some kind of universal truth from which we can proceed to have a better government and a better society as a result.

On some people on the left and the right not respecting freedom of speech

Well, my take is that we as a people tend to understand the First Amendment in a very specific and personal way. We tend to believe that the First Amendment says that we have a right to free speech as long as you say things that I agree with. That tends to be the way that the First Amendment is viewed on the left; it tends to be the way that it's viewed on the right. So there's a tension — there's always has been a tension between the idea of free speech and the practice of it in the real world when people don't like ideas that they don't like and they don't want to hear them. And I think that's just one of the things we need to struggle with as a society.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to take a few minutes now to talk about what is likely the best-known and possibly most cherished of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the First, especially the right to freedom of speech. But there is also a long-running battle over what the limits of free speech should be. And this election year, with its heated and sometimes hateful rhetoric and challenges to the tech companies to referee it all, is certainly placing that battle at the forefront. That's just one reason editor and columnist Ellis Cose's latest book is so timely. It's called "The Short Life And Curious Death Of Free Speech in America." And Ellis Cose is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ELLIS COSE: Well, thank you, Michel. I'm delighted to be speaking with you.

MARTIN: So let's start with the question - the first question that comes to mind in the title. Why do you call it the short life of freedom of speech? I think that's the first thing that might be surprising to people.

COSE: Right. As you correctly pointed out in your intro, the First Amendment by definition is the First Amendment, you know? It was the First Amendment to the Constitution. It was ratified in 1791. So it's been with us almost since we have had a constitution. And the assumption that most people have is that it's just a right that's always been there, that's always been respected and that we've always enjoyed as Americans. But that's not quite true. In 1798, we have the Alien and Sedition Acts, which in effect nullify the First Amendment. It made it illegal to criticize the then-Federalist government. It made it illegal to speak out and to do the things that we think are routine to do now.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, one of the revelations of the book, I think for some, was how recent our concept of freedom of speech is. So how did that come about?

COSE: It grew directly out of World War I. When the United States government got involved in the war, we immediately passed a couple of new laws. One was the Espionage Act, the other, which was the Sedition Act, which was an amendment to the Espionage Act. And what they - what those laws did, as the original Alien and Sedition Acts did, was to essentially make it illegal to criticize the government.

And so you had any number of individuals and institutions who were jailed because they were critical of the draft. And you had a number of activists, you know, including the group that later became - came together as the ACLU, who said, wait a minute, you know? Don't we have freedom of speech in this country? Can't we speak out? And so, slowly, we began to come up with a modern conception of the First Amendment.

MARTIN: One of the other interesting points that you make in the book is that you point out that both presidents that preceded Donald Trump in the White House - President George W. Bush and President Obama - embraced policies that threatened freedom of speech in some form. I think that would be a shock to some. But you also say that the threat posed by President Trump is different. How so?

COSE: In many respects. I mean, I - at least Obama and George Bush had respect for the Constitution, and they understood what it meant. But when you go into the current administration, you have an administration that doesn't even believe in truth, that does not believe in constitutional process and does not believe in rights at all, as generally understood. And what - we now have an entire government apparatus designed to foster falsehoods, and that endangers the whole idea that our country is based on, which is that we can get to some kind of universal truth from which we can proceed to have a better government and a better society as a result.

MARTIN: In the book, you're critical of the right. I mean, you are. You're critical of the right. You're critical of big tech. But you are - there are times when you're critical of the left, when you say that people who consider themselves progressive don't show a respect for the principle of free speech, either. I mean, you do talk about something that has been very attention-getting, which is these episodes on college campuses where conservative speakers - sometimes, you know, far right, "alt-right" clearly intended to be provocative - have been kind of shouted down. But what is your take on this?

COSE: Well, my take is that we as a people tend to understand the First Amendment in a very specific and personal way. We tend to believe that the First Amendment says that we have a right to free speech as long as you say things that I agree with. That tends to be the way that the First Amendment is viewed on the left; it tends to be the way that it's viewed on the right. So there's a tension. Then there's always has been a tension between the idea of free speech and the practice of it in the real world when people don't like ideas that they don't like and they don't want to hear them. And I think that's just one of the things we need to struggle with as a society.

MARTIN: That was Ellis Cose. His latest book is called "The Short Life And Curious Death Of Free Speech In America." Ellis Cose, thank you so much for talking with us.

COSE: Thank you, Michel. It's been a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.