NO OTHER EXPERIENCE has so significantly affected a high school junior. I discovered that the principal was misappropriating sums of money from the student activity fund. After attempting to work through channels, a pal and I wrote, printed and distributed a single-sheet flyer entitled "Student Arise." w
Calling for a massive student demonstration the broadside drew its first response from the faculty. The principal suspended us (and our typist) from school. Our thin pamphlet and aborted protest were "Communist tactics," he said. Although my collaborator and I both were Barry Goldwater supporters, the principal's charges sobered our potential allies in the small Illinois town -- bastion of strict constructionist Republicanism -- where we lived. Our parents, our teachers, even my godfather, who was president of the school board (and, coincidentally, one of the seven Democrats in town), all said the same things: "You can't fight city hall."
"But we have First Amendment rights," we protested.
"Not this time," we heard repeatedly.
Reluctantly and sheepishly, we agreed to be silent; in exchange for our continued silence, we could return to school.
For two decades my regret over the vow of silence had grown steadily. Just as millions of Americans do each day, I had abandoned a basic constitutional right without much of a fight. I had lost faith in the freedom of speech and with it my faith in a score of other constitutional guarantees. These were things I was willing to let others defend on other battlegrounds.
Among the few things I wish vehemently for my own children is that they never have to face a similar predicament without a better grasp of their consitutional rights. I want them to understand the full range of those rights, how often attempts have been made to curtail them and their own responsibility to defend them.
The first thing I intend to do is to buy each of them copies of Nat Hentoff's new book, The First Freedom.
Hentoff has written in clear, concise, jargon-free English a poignant, readable history of freedom of expresson in America. Traditionally authors tackling the huge mass of First Amendment struggles fall into one or another of the more abstract dimensions (the establishment clause, the free speech dilemma, and so forth), illustrating their findings with occasional examples of heroic patriotism. But it is Hentoff's genius that his villains are of the everyday variety. They are more mean-minded than evil, more timid than zealous, more callous than ogreish. There are book burnings (in 1973, the Drake, N. D., school board burned Slaughterhouse Five), but generally in the more contemporary of Hentoff's vignettes, trial by ordeal has been replaced by more commonplace and subtle threats to teachers and students -- lower grades, suspension from school, tenure denial, poor job references.
Using just such an ordinary example, Hentoff persuasively demonstrates the wisdom of one of his minor heroines, a school librarian whose vindication was followed by long unemployment.
"And what I learned most of all is that the First Amendment is never abstract. It's always this book, this poem. So, anyone who cares . . . will have to keep on doing battle one book at a time, sometimes one page at a time."
With the fundamentals digested, Hentoff takes a tour of the first Amendment of which Pogo would be proud. We have indeed found the enemy, and he is indeed us. But it is a catalogue that every Fourth of July speechmaker should be obliged to study:
-- From the English sedition acts that made it treason to imagine the king's death grew an American version in 1798 which led to the imprisonment of a congressman for accusing the president of "ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice."
-- Thomas Jefferson comtemplated a "selected" persecution of various publishers, and Abraham Lincoln closed some newpapers and jailed some editors.
-- The labor movement, particulary the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) did much to advance First Amendment freedoms and were often persecuted for their trouble.
-- The Espionage Act of 1917 and a 1918 amendment making it a crime to "utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States" focused a national hysteria on Communist aliens and anyone else deemed unAmerican and led to a series of brutal and vulgar acts beginning with the Palmer raids and culminating in McCarthy's reckless hunt for Communists.
-- The Supreme Court has oscillated between defending and constricting free speech and has been particularly timid about acting during times of national peril.
Hentoff's discussion of press freedom is somewhat more abstract and, therefore, marginally less accessible to the broad readership he deserves. At the same time it includes Supreme Court cases decided as recently as last summer. His discussion of libel law, one or the more elusive of First Amentment issues, is brilliantly comprehensible. There is simply nothing like it available (even in the well-selected bibliography Hentoff includes).
Hentoff's chapter on obscenity points up both a major triumph and a minor flaw in his treatment of the Supreme Court. He has used italics to highlight and emphasize portions of substantial quotes from the Court's printed opinions. He does it so well that many of the opinions will be seen differently even by those familiar with them. On the other hand, like other chapters based largely on the Court's published opinions, the obscenity discussion fails to bring alive the justices, their interrelationships, or their longstanding differences. As a result, the book fails to portray the Court in either its full ridiculousness or in its complete agony as it trips over itself in the area of obscenity.
But this is a small complaint for such an ambitious book. While not intended as a major addition to First Amendment theory, the book does an excellent job of distilling the other more scholary and less accessible books on the subject.
One last note about Hentoff and how well he has done his job. He will likely be attacked for his liberal perspective. He is in fact a card-carrying board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Reporters Committe for Freedom of the Press. There is no love wasted on federalists, monarchs, school boards or the establishment.
Yet it is not Hentoff's politics that will be found offensive. It is that he tells his story so well, using non-showy examples. I doubt that teenagers can read this book without becoming more curious about their rights and more courageous about exercising them. And so, I fear that like some self-actualizing appendix to itself, Hentoff's book will be banned from more than a few high school libraries. But maybe, and perhaps as a further appendix to the book, the protest will, for once, not be quite as individual and isolated.