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.”
Joseph Plouffe –
“Overall, I thought the book had good intentions. I went into reading knowing Jonathan was an extreme lefty and registered Democrat but a Democrat Free Speech advocate is rare these days.
Obviously the book is going to have its biases, as I have my own, but I thought the book purposely overlooked how much Liberals and Democrats alike (including left leaning media) is more for shutting down public debate than any Conservative or Republican.
Big Tech Censorship should have been a larger theme, which the book didn’t even mention the deplatforming of the then current sitting president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
There are also multiple accounts in this book that are just flat out false.
1. He references the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” event, that if you look into, Trump was taken out of context and he continued to push that misinformation
2. He references Trump using military to clear a “peaceful protest” in Portland, Oregon for a photo op. You can say this didn’t age well because this has been thoroughly debunked.
3. He continued to perpetuate this narrative of “mostly peaceful protests” and suggested Police were infringing on those right to assemble.
It’s a quick read, I enjoyed the historical references to free speech, since I’m not old enough to say “Yeah, that isn’t true, that never happened”, but some of the blatant lies and misinformation hurts Jonathan’s credibility as an author.
It’s nice getting different perspectives, it’s important to continue challenging yourself to think differently, but I can’t come to recommend buying this book just given it’s more leftist propaganda than anything else.”
I enjoyed the historical context of the freedom of speech and stories of the struggles we’ve had in America to protect it. I hope more people read this book before attempting to sensor opinions and positions of those they disagree with.
Leonard Rodenbur –
The book did a wonderful job of getting g one to think and realize the importance of free speech cor all and what that truly means
Bailey Hummel –
““’If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition.’”
I first encountered Mr. Zimmerman when he was a guest on a recent episode of the Joe Rogan podcast. I thought he was extremely reasonable and spoke with a sort of intellectual integrity, so I figured I’d check out this essay. I’M SO GLAD I DID.
This was a very well-written, easily digestible treatise on the importance of free speech and America’s historically tenuous relationship with our most fundamental liberty.
While I’d love for every reader to agree with Mr. Zimmerman, I certainly think every reader would benefit from reading through his points and comparing them with your own personal morals and ethics.
Brett Axel –
Its no surprise that Trump lovers hate this book. Of course they do. The book puts the rhetoric into perfective at a level a 14 year old can understand, fairly, and based on fact.
“I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
This was a very informative and easy to read book on the importance of free speech. Jonathan Zimmerman writes a very compelling argument on we cannot have a truly just and democratic society without it. This is backed up by the many events in America’s history where the first amendment has either been challenged or defended. The history presented is comprehensive and concise. It’s very detailed without being hard to read. The political cartoons drawn by Signe Wilkinson really add to the idea and drive the message home. They are fun and witty while not taking away from the seriousness of the topic.
We are currently living in a world where people are doubtful of how well protected our first amendment rights are. This book is a great reminder of why we must pay attention to the world around us and watch out for suppression of free speech. This includes speech that we may find controversial and not agree with as well. It’s well-researched and does a fantastic job of demonstrating why free speech is so important to our liberty.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!”
Barbara Gregorich –
“Every champion of the poor and dispossessed in United States history,” writes Jonathan Zimmerman, “has also been a champion of free speech, which allowed them to critique inequality and oppression.” Free speech is a necessary, vital, essential tool for groups of people who want to make informed decisions. Decisions that — in the face of global warming, pandemics, invasions, racial hatred, and the relentless attacks on our liberties and standard of living — must be made, and made correctly, if the world is to survive.
In Free Speech: And Why You Should Give a Damn, Jonathan Zimmerman gives a riveting, succinct summary of the history of free speech in the U.S., showing over and over that laws against free speech demanded by any particular group can and will, when that group is out of power, be turned against the very group that demanded them. The banning of free speech is a double-edged sword that not only can cut in both directions: it inevitably does cut both ways. To demand government censorship is to give government (and others) a weapon to use against you.
Free Speech is a must-read for everyone. It succinctly examines one of our most fundamental rights in clear prose, enhanced by the trenchant cartoons of Signe Wilkinson.