An up-close-and-personal account of the last 50 years in First Amendment law.
Abrams, a leading First Amendment attorney, focuses on nine cases that were central both to his career and to interpretation of the right to free speech in the U.S. He’s a ferocious champion of the First Amendment in each of these cases. They range from the Pentagon Papers to McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, in which Abrams challenged the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Act. Chapter Seven, which deals with the Brooklyn Museum case, is particularly intriguing. In 1999, the museum mounted a show called “Sensation,” which caused a sensation, in part because it included a painting that used elephant dung in a depiction of the Virgin Mary. New York City Mayor Giuliani, who emerges in these pages as hell-bent on “doing the one thing the First Amendment most clearly forbids: using the power of the government to restrict or punish speech critical of government itself,” was offended by the painting and attempted to pull city funding from the exhibit. An ensuing lawsuit landed at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, with Abrams at the victorious helm. The last chapter here is interesting, but feels a mite tacked on. Rather than focusing on a particular case, Abrams contrasts American law with English, European and international law. In general, free speech is more robustly protected in the States—except, Abrams ominously intones, when it comes to journalists’ right to protect their sources. On this question, the U.S. protects the press less rigorously than many European countries. Abrams’s subject matter is sophisticated, and his approach is pitched at a higher level than much that passes for today’s commentary on current events.
Complex yet lucidly conveyed points of constitutional interpretation, never bogged in jargon.