In The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America, journalist Ellis Cose (The Rage of the Privileged Class) provides a comprehensive history of the United States Constitution's First Amendment and the many ways that the ideal of free speech has evolved over the course of the country's relatively short history. It feels too limiting to describe this as a book solely about the topic of free speech, however--perhaps fitting given that the concept of free speech has touched so many aspects of American political, social and cultural history.
"The issue of speech--particularly in a society polluted by racism and largely defined by economic inequality--is endlessly complex," Cose explains in the introduction to his work. He then proceeds to untangle that complex history in a way that is accessible to a layperson without a law degree. In doing so, Cose provides readers with tools to understand better the concept of free speech in the United States--including the fact that, despite being enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it was rarely enforced until the 20th century--and how various limits to free speech have played out in well-known (and some less well-known) court cases. The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America uses this historical analysis to urge readers to consider important questions about what constitutes free speech, and what lengths we are willing to go to as a nation to protect that speech, even as the United States--and the world--sees rises in hate speech (and corresponding acts of violence). --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm