CRF Blog

The cultural boundaries around expression in the US

by Bill Hayes

In The cultural boundaries around expression in the US for the Columbia Journalism Review, Julia Klein reviews Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword by David K. Shipler.

Shipler generally tries to solicit diverse perspectives, recapitulating at sometimes tedious length the arguments of those with whom he obviously disagrees. He himself is “as close to … an absolutist on the First Amendment as possible without actually being one.” He notes that the distinction between (protected) symbolic speech and (illegal) intimidation can be murky. He supports compelling reporters to testify about confidential sources only in cases, for example, of “a deadly crime being planned … or an ongoing threat, such as sex trafficking or child pornography” that a journalist’s testimony could halt. He worries, too, about the potential for prosecutorial abuse of those exceptions.

Shipler begins with a 2012 book controversy in Michigan’s Plymouth-Canton school district. The relatively obscure work under assault was Waterland (1983), by the British novelist Graham Swift, which contains a passage about a teenage sexual encounter. When a father, Matt Dame, complained, the school superintendent withdrew Waterland from the curriculum without consulting even the high school principal.

Afterwards, “the book, ponderous and soporific to some, was suddenly intriguing,” Shipler writes; the local bookstore sold out, and the public library had to order more copies. The attempt at censorship backfired and then ended, with the superintendent admitting error. [more]