Thinking Aloud: “Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword”

May 18, 2015 by Darius 

Last week, I saw former New York Times writer David Shipler talk about his new book Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.

Shipler began by saying that there are two main boundaries on free speech in the US.  The first is the boundary of law.  In the US, free speech is fiercely protected by the First Amendment; according to Shipler, the US has perhaps the most permissive laws regarding free speech in the world.  The second boundary is cultural and is much more fluid and undefined; however, it usually means a narrower band of “acceptable” speech than “legal” speech.

In the process of examining several challenges and defenses of free speech in modern US history, including challenges to books in schools and would-be federal whistleblowers, Shipler raised particular concerns about the deepening of secrecy laws relating to national security.  For example, according to Shipler, even authorized spokespeople are not opening up to the press as much as they used to for fear of unintentionally divulging classified information.  Additionally, a federal law shielding whistleblowers does not apply to national security situations, which account for 95% of cases.  As a result of overzealous protection, according to Shipler, the press and, for lack of information and transparency about government action, the entire public are hurt.

Based on Shipler’s talk, the book would seem to be a series of loosely related anecdotes brought together under the aegis of a discussion of free speech.  A timely topic, but probably not the most commanding treatment of it.

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