First Amendment Theory Study Aid: Make No Law

Thanks to Dan and everyone else for inviting me back (and then putting up with me as I delayed accepting the invitation). At this time of the year, as the semester ends and the opportunities for faculty writing time increase, student attention turns understandably towards exams. I’ve been teaching the basic First Amendment course at Wash. U. for six years now, and the more I have taught the course, the more interested I have become in the theory and structure of free speech law at the expense of its often technical doctrinal rules. As my course has evolved to reflect these interests, my students understandably have asked me to suggest a study aid that could supplement some of the things I talk about in class (though “gibberish” may be more accurate). For doctrine, I have always suggested the First Amendment section of Erwin Chemerinsky’s excellent one-volume treatise Constitutional Law. But I always struggled to suggest a good, one-volume, accessible primer on the history and theory of the First Amendment. But in rereading Anthony Lewis’ Make No Law (Vintage 1991) for a paper earlier this semester, I think I might have found the answer. Lewis’ book tells the story of the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, which applied rigorous First Amendment scrutiny to state defamation law, and held the “core meaning” of the First Amendment to be criticism of public officials. What I had forgotten about the book is the masterful and accessible way that Lewis situates the Times case in the evolution of First Amendment thought more broadly, both in its intellectual origins in the work of Milton, Madison, Holmes, and Brandeis, as well as in its effect on First Amendment law more generally. It’s not perfect; Lewis has a tendency at times to be uncritical of the Court’s opinion in Times and to view the result as foreordained. But although it is a bit of a hagiography of the case, its early chapters are the best basic treatment of elementary First Amendment history and theory that I’ve seen. So I thought I’d pass it on, should any First Amendment teachers or students feel the need to brush up on their free speech theory as we approach the business end of the semester.

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