Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword
By David K. Shipler
Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.352 pages.
The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech
By Kirsten Powers
Regnery Publishing. $27.99.
A few years back, I dropped in to see a lecture on "taboo speech" by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. At one point, Dershowitz asked his class if the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, then lit into a hapless student who answered in the affirmative.
No, of course, it doesn't, Dershowitz chastised. People who say what others consider to be the wrong thing can still be ostracized, fired, and sued. All the First Amendment does is constrain the ability of government to abridge speech, and even that is not absolute. There are still limits on "fighting words," words that cause panic, and perceived threats to national security.
David Shipler, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, gets it: The First Amendment is only a starting point. Free expression is a noble ideal that creates continual tension in our society.
Shipler's new book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, covers a range of battles on the frontiers of free expression. He shines a light on efforts to remove books from school curriculum, talking to offended parents and defensive educators. He explores the courage of government whistleblowers, forged in the crucible of their life experience. He probes the mindset of an ex-cop in Maine who in 2013 thought it was a good idea to post this online about President Obama: "Shoot the nigger." He looks at anti-Muslim myth-making, the U.S. Supreme Court's equation of speech with unlimited political spending, and dust-ups over theatrical plays.
Shipler's view of America's free speech landscape is nuanced and complex. Yes, people say awful things, and sometimes seek to squelch expression with which they disagree. But in his book, good ideas and sentiments hold their own against bad and offensive ones.
Not so with Kirsten Powers. The self-described liberal columnist and Fox News commentator has a scary new book with a horror movie title, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. She seems to have little faith in the power of speech to withstand unfair attacks, even as she presents numerous examples of this happening.
In Powers's telling, the right to speak freely in America has been effectively destroyed by ignorant bullies she dubs "the illiberal left." They run roughshod over anyone...