In America we like to think we live in a land of liberty, where everyone can say whatever they want. Throughout our history, however, we have also been quick to censor people who offend or frighten us. We talk a good game about freedom of speech, then we turn around and deny it to others.
In this brief but bracing book, historian Jonathan Zimmerman and Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson tell the story of free speech in America: who established it, who has denounced it, and who has risen to its defense. They also make the case for why we should care about it today, when free speech is once again under attack.
Across the political spectrum, Americans have demanded the suppression of ideas and images that allegedly threaten our nation. But the biggest danger to America comes not from speech but from censorship, which prevents us from freely governing ourselves.
Free speech allows us to criticize our leaders. It lets us consume the art, film, and literature we prefer. And, perhaps most importantly, it allows minorities to challenge the oppression they suffer.
Free speech has too often been cast as the enemy of social justice, but that view is belied by our history. Disadvantaged Americans have consistently used free speech to defy the powerful. The only way to make a more just and equitable America is to allow every American to have their say.
Jonathan Zimmerman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know and seven other books. He is also a frequent op-ed contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other national newspapers and magazines. Zimmerman received the 2019 Open Inquiry Leadership Award from Heterodox Academy, which promotes viewpoint diversity in higher education.
For 35 years, Signe Wilkinson’s political cartoons at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer have targeted malpracticing politicians and championed women and children’s rights, education, racial equity, privacy, free speech, and the joys of gardening. She
didn’t turn down the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, two RFK awards, and four Overseas Press Club Thomas Nast Awards, but most cherishes being named “Pennsylvania State Vegetable Substitute.”