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On the Front Lines with the First Amendment

by Floyd Abrams

Pub Date: June 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-300-19087-8
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Vigorous, principled defenses of freedom of expression from a long career in the legal trenches.

Eminent attorney Abrams (Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment, 2005) aptly describes this book as "a potpourri of my published and unpublished speeches, public debates, testimony, reviews, letters and the like about the First Amendment,” though of the six freedoms guaranteed there, he covers only freedom of speech and of the press. The author has been litigating these issues at the highest levels for over 40 years; he was part of the team that argued the “Pentagon Papers” case, as he often reminds us. The various pieces, which go back as far as 1978, are arranged topically and include consideration of such issues as dangers to national security, libel, copyright and the protection of reporters’ sources. Most were written for general readership, and Abrams presents his views in clear language. Unfortunately, the format ensures that much material will be repetitious, with the same cases and quotations frequently reappearing. The author often presents himself as something of a First Amendment absolutist, so his arguments have the advantage of clarity with only a dash of nuance. He wholeheartedly accepts the proposition that, outside of clearly recognized, exceptional categories, our government is generally foreclosed from preventing or punishing speech, however dishonest, dangerous or obnoxious. As any skilled attorney’s presentation will, Abrams’ positions can appear self-evident in the absence of rebuttal from the other side. Indeed, the most interesting pieces are those few in which the opposition is heard directly, as in a discussion on pornography, or where the opposing position is well-known, as in Abrams’ ringing defense of the widely reviled Citizens United opinion.

While the legal principles presented remain sound, the commentary on controversies that were topical in the 1980s and ’90s too often sounds dated and suggests that Abrams is largely serving warmed-over material from an illustrious past.