Interview: David K. Shipler

Shipler ImageDavid K. Shipler is the author of seven books, including Arab and Jew, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, The Working Poor, The Rights of the People, Rights at Risk, and now Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword. This work of non-fiction begins by chronicling over-protective parents who are trying to have novels with sexual references banned from classrooms and libraries. The book then moves on to the silencing of (pre-Snowden) NSA whistleblowers and the persecution of investigative journalists who refuse to reveal their sources. Later chapters cover the limitations on hate speech, not by law but by culture, conspiracy theorists who run seminars that predict an Islamic takeover of America, and finally arrives at the controversial plays at Theater J in Washington D.C., which Jewish groups try to prevent from being shown. Freedom of Speech is an incredibly empowering and illuminating book, and should be read by any American interested in the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.

—Randy Rosenthal


Tweed’s: In your introduction to Freedom of Speech, you mention the limitations of free speech—mainly hate speech—found in several other developed countries. How does freedom of speech in the United States compare with other countries? For instance, is there another country with even greater freedom of speech than we have?


David K. Shipler: Although many other countries have less constitutional protection than our First Amendment provides, the Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project ranks them higher. The US is placed below Australia, Austria, the United Kingdom (surprising, since it has an official secrets act prohibiting press publication of classified information), New Zealand, Canada, Denmark. France, Germany, Ghana, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Uruguay. This, despite, the fact that most West European countries outlaw Holocaust denial, for example. I would guess that the relatively low US rating comes in part from the aggressive prosecution lately of leakers and whistleblowers who disclose classified information about the war on terrorism and other government activities.


Tweed’s: Your answer is quite surprising—I was expecting you to say that the US is ranked first in freedom of speech, for the very reason of allowing hate speech (despite the prosecution of whistleblowers). Along with the chapter on the persecution of investigative journalists who refuse to reveal sources, I found the chapter on whistleblowers to be the most disturbing and captivating of your book.

What would you say is the greatest threat to our freedom of speech?

Would it be the silencing of whistleblowers—supposed “traitors”—through prosecution or intimidation? Or, as you describe in another chapter, the abuse of free speech by racists who spread bigoted false accusations against President Obama? Or perhaps something more subtle, like the self-censorship of the media?


David K. Shipler: The basic threat probably comes from inside the citizenry in the form of apathy. Rights atrophy unless they are used, and too often people fail to assert their rights when confronted. This happens especially in high schools, where students tend to acquiesce to administrators’ efforts to suppress speech by censoring school newspapers, restricting political messages on clothing, banning certain clubs from organizing, etc. First Amendment protection inside public schools is less robust than outside, but students still have more rights than they may realize, and when they gather the courage to push back and, for example, contact the ACLU, they often win. But what lesson are school administrators teaching? Not good lessons of citizenship in a constitutional democracy. (I wrote extensively about this in another book, Rights at Risk, released in Feb. in a paperback edition.)

In the latest book, Freedom of Speech, I journeyed along the boundaries of expression, and there I found numerous external threats. They include, as you say, government’s intimidation of officials and reporters, which has depleted the flow of important information to the American public about government conduct. There are dangers in local efforts to stop theaters from producing certain plays, stop teachers and librarians from using or stocking certain books. Intolerance on certain college campuses for certain speakers violates the university’s philosophy of intellectual openness. And the disparity between the ability of the affluent and the poor to speak on public issues because of the importance of money in politics deals a crippling blow to serious debate. I wouldn’t count the reckless racism and conspiracy theories that fly around the Internet as threats to the freedom of speech, but rather as illustrations of the ugly features that go with the vast landscape of liberty. They are part of the territory, and we have to answer them, rebut them, counter them—not with restrictions but with more speech.


Tweed’s: You say that money in politics cripples debate. I wanted to ask your opinion about the idea that money is speech, which seems dubious to me. Do you think the First Amendment was meant to protect the free flow of money into politics, and how do you think this protection of money as speech will affect the value of our freedom of speech?


David K. Shipler: It shouldn’t be, but money buys a voice in political campaigns and debates over public policy, while poverty consigns people to silence. Look at two issues last year affecting the poor: the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and severe cuts to food stamps proposed by Republicans in Congress. People in poverty were not heard from directly on either matter, because they didn’t have the money to lobby, to advertise, or to organize. The only way their views reached the public square of debate was through third parties such as non-profit advocacy organizations and the press. In political campaigns, the playing field has been tilted even more severely by the Supreme Court’s ruling, in Citizens United, that corporations’ speech cannot constitutionally be limited. That decision has made it more difficult to reconcile restrictions on campaign contributions with the First Amendment. That’s a fact of life now in the constitutional landscape, and either Congress has to come up with inventive ways to protect speech while limiting undue financial influence, or a recast Supreme Court at a future time has to revisit the issue and perhaps reverse Citizens United. Another idea being kicked around is for the government’s presidential election fund, or some similar mechanism, to match small campaign donations by multiples such as 5-to-1 to help amplify the voices of the less affluent. The result would be a healthy expansion of the scope of free speech. Until we get this right, though, the speech of the less affluent will be severely curtailed.


Tweed’s: Freedom of Speech is very thorough in your coverage of the various areas that relate to American freedom of speech, but I was surprised that there isn’t a section on protest movements. We often associate our freedom of speech with the freedom to protest, so I’m curious why you didn’t include a section on protesting. I’d love the hear your opinion on the efficacy of protesting, especially when there are many bureaucratic requirements that essentially marginalize and defang protest movements, making this freedom of speech somewhat of a charade—unless there’s a spontaneous, unconventional protest method, such as the Occupy movement, which was (relatively) quickly disbanded.


David K. Shipler: I didn’t write in this book about protest movements because I cover them—and the restrictions on demonstrations—in my book just published in paperback in February, Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America. (In a sense, Freedom of Speech is the third in a trilogy about civil liberties.) In Chapter Seven, titled “A Redress of Grievances,” I write about the misuse of the Secret Service by the Bush White House to curtail protesters by setting up “free-speech zones” far from where Bush would see them and by expelling people from his public speeches on suspicion that they might speak out. Also covered is the difficulty Code Pink has had protesting on Capitol Hill under the Obama administration. I give a full account of the controversy surrounding the Westboro Baptist Church, which faced many state restrictions but won in the Supreme Court when their right to demonstrate outside soldiers’ funerals was challenged. (In crude language, they celebrate soldiers’ deaths as God’s retribution for America’s embrace of homosexuality.) The chapter also delves into local police surveillance of nonviolent protest groups, the high permit fees some localities charge, and the chilling effect that can have on dissent.

If I may, in answering your incisive question on the efficacy of protesting, I’ll rely on what I wrote in Rights at Risk:


“As an exercise in First Amendment rights, demonstrations are usually born of frustration, and their impact is debatable. They typically open space for dissent where authorities have stopped listening, but they don’t usually force policy change without becoming intensely dramatic, either by incurring violence from the police, as during the civil rights movement, or by their overwhelming size and persistence, as during the war in Vietnam—two rare successes in the annals of American street protests.

“The marchers against segregation in the South prevailed mainly because their opponents, represented by beefy white civilians and cops, played the thugs by attacking peaceful protesters with dogs, fire hoses, and truncheons, as if fulfilling roles in a pageant of injustice. Civil rights leaders understood very well how powerfully the televised scenes of crude brutality against passive resistance would mobilize the conscience of the country against the segregationists.

“The Vietnam protests grew so huge, and their spin-offs so intrusive on college campuses, that they amplified the larger public’s gathering doubts about the failing war and eventually propelled the American withdrawal. . . . Typically, though, most demonstrations are futile, so it’s remarkable how eagerly government tries to impede them.”


I’d add that the Occupy movement might have had more impact if it had had an agenda instead of just an inchoate antipathy to corporate misdeeds and wealth disparities. Nevertheless, it can be credited with helping to crystallize the public’s concerns about income inequality, and that can be counted as an accomplishment. Where that rising consciousness leads in terms of policy, if anywhere, remains an open question.


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