three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
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Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism

A-PerilousTimesStone, a leading Constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago, exhaustively details what he calls the United States’s "long and unfortunate history of overreacting to the perceived dangers of wartime" by curtailing freedom of speech. He focuses on six periods in which the federal government suppressed or punished dissenters: in 1798, when a battle with France seemed imminent; during the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Vietnam War; and in the midst of the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War. Stone also briefly examines the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 attitudes toward freedom of speech. Ultimately, he finds "not a single instance of a decision in which the Supreme Court has protected wartime dissent in a way that caused any demonstrable harm to the national security."
Norton. 730 pages. $35. ISBN: 0393058808

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"So rich in material is Perilous Times … that this scholarly yet highly readable book amounts to an anecdotal history of the United States itself, from the Founding Fathers to the present. … [Stone] has written, with knowing passion, a cautionary tale for our times." Herbert Mitgang

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Stone is a constitutional scholar and a zealous defender of free speech, but he is also a great storyteller." Jonathan Karl

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With clarity, moderation, and some 2,000 footnotes, Stone explains how Americans could come to fear their own founding documents. We have long needed this book, though perhaps never as badly as we do today."

Columbia Journalism Rev 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Stone] demonstrates [his thesis] effectively in this compelling and timely book …. It shows in episodes that are both painful and shameful to recall just how fragile the idea of free speech can be." Anthony Marro

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One closes this admirable book more than ever determined that the authors of the Constitution were right the first time, and that the only amendment necessary might be a prohibition on the passage of any law within six months of any atrocity, foreign or domestic." Christopher Hitchens

Denver Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Stone’s heavily footnoted and annotated telling is sometimes plodding, but it is an important heads-up for freedom in our own perilous time." Dick Kreck

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Stone’s] encyclopedic narrative of free speech during wartime is a must-read for all who treasure the First Amendment. … [But] although his historical assertion may be literally accurate, it hides as much as it reveals." Alan M. Dershowitz

Critical Summary

Most critics found new legal and critical insight in Stone’s examination of the First Amendment and how its principles have been compromised during wartime. But some readers may find Stone’s comprehensive, footnote-filled tome too scholarly for pleasurable reading. At least one reviewer—Harvard Law School Professor and civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz—believes Stone "exaggerates the role of war in the history of American censorship." (Boston Globe) But nobody questions the author’s credentials or the importance and timeliness of his topic. That’s undoubtedly why several publications—The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor—included Perilous Times on their lists of notable books of 2004.