In the Library: Books on Free Speech

In the year since my book The Fight for Free Speech: Ten Case That Define Our First Amendment Freedoms was published by NYU Press, I am often asked if there are particular breaking-news topics that I wish I had been able to comment on or would want to address in the future. I am happy to say that I believe that The Fight for Free Speech is more relevant than ever as a user’s guide to understanding our free speech rights today through a look at transformational cases from the past. At the same time, I am also equally pleased to draw readers attention to other authors’ books that explore related contemporary issues with a similar commitment to being accessible and engaging works for general audiences. To that end, here are a selection of books I have recommended and referred to recently that speak eloquently to vital questions about our courts, civil liberties, and of course free speech.

To gain greater context on the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (who is unassailably qualified for this honor), I highly recommend the award-winning Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court by Renee Knake Jefferson & Hannah Brenner Johnson (NYU Press, 2022), which reveals the untold history of women considered, but not selected, for the Supreme Court. The paperback version, which came out last month, contains both a new preface by the authors, and a new foreword by NYU Law Professor Melissa Murray, who brilliantly discusses both Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the potential impact of a Black woman on the high court. Shortlisted, Murray writes, “lays the foundation for a difficult—but urgently necessary—conversation,” concerning “how do we ensure that our institutions not only reflect the diversity of our country, but actively work to protect it?”

Sarah Palin recently lost her libel case against The New York Times, which has raised renewed interest in how our nation’s libel laws work. Chapter 3 of The Fight for Free Speech Handbook not only explains the current “actual malice” standard, but also tells how civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, were crucial in securing this free press victory for all Americans. I recently re-read one book I relied on for researching the history of that era, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement(W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), by Townsend Davis (a friend and colleague), and I was struck anew by how evocatively it documents the stories of so many individuals who made up that movement. My family and I referred to Weary Feet, Rested Souls frequently on a recent visit to The Legacy Museum, created by the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama, and this work of oral history, organized by historic civil rights sites and locations, never failed to enlighten us during our trip.

At book talks that I give, I am frequently asked about hate speech, which I discuss in The Fight for Free Speech’s Chapter 9, entitled, “Nazis in Charlottesville, Funeral Protests, and Speakers We Hate.” Audiences are often surprised to learn that the Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed that hate speech is in fact protected by the First Amendment. When people want to know more about the arguments in favor of this approach, I am always eager to give my strongest recommendation to New York Law School Professor (and past ACLU President) Nadine Strossen’s HATE: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship (Oxford University Press, 2020). Strossen clearly and persuasively argues, based on extensive international examples and analysis, that the best way to promote equality is not through banning hate speech, but instead by vigorous “counterspeech” and activism.

One of the main inspirations for The Fight for Free Speech, particularly the way in which it manages to condense wisdom without dumbing it down, was Yale history Professor Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. With the war in Ukraine tragically demonstrating how fascism once again seeks to topple democracies and free speech, this book remains painfully timely. A new graphic novel edition, with art by Norah Krug (Ten Speed Press, 2021), adds even more richness and visual power to Snyder’s indispensable lessons.

And speaking of nonfiction graphic novels, I’m delighted to tell people about my own graphic novel companion to The Fight for Free Speech, called Free Speech Handbook (Macmillan, 2021), which was co-created with Eisner-nominated artist Mike Cavallaro. Mike’s vibrant illustrations bring history, and legal metaphors like the “marketplace of ideas,” to life. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called Free Speech Handbook an “informative and inspiring guide,” and I think this graphic novel is perfect for teenagers (and adults) who want to speak their mind and change the world.

Finally, I’m very much looking forward to reading the recently released, Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media (Basic Books 2022)by Jacob Mchangama. As I was writing The Fight for Free Speech, I was an avid listener to Mchangama’s engrossing podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, and look forward to diving into the book version of his world-view approach to understanding free speech history since ancient times.

As I say in the conclusion of The Fight for Free Speech: promoting and protecting free speech is not out of reach, it is an everyday grass roots activity. And any of these excellent books will aid you in this worthy pursuit.

IAN ROSENBERG has over twenty years of experience as a media lawyer, and has worked as legal counsel for ABC News since 2003. A magna cum laude graduate of Cornell Law School, he is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker, and teaches media law at Brooklyn College. In a starred review, Kirkus called his book, The Fight for Free Speech, “essential reading for journalists, political activists, and ordinary citizens alike.” The Los Angeles Review of Books raved that “this is an important book, elegantly crafted and accessible to all … The Fight for Free Speech may very well be the best introduction to free speech and freedom of the press.”

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