The cultural boundaries around expression in the US

July 6, 2015

A little theater in Washington courts controversy and financial ruin when it dares to present Arab perspectives on Israeli and Middle Eastern history.

A Michigan school superintendent peremptorily removes a book from a high school English curriculum, igniting protests, after one parent complains about an explicit sexual passage.

An intelligence professional turned whistleblower endures federal prosecution and the destruction of his career, and ends up working at a suburban Apple Store.

These are among the case studies unpacked by David K. Shipler—the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew and a former New York Times foreign correspondent—in his occasionally illuminating but meandering take on the cultural boundaries of expression in the United States.

A dogged reporter, Shipler is also a man of wide-ranging curiosity and interests. One of his targets is, in fact, the legion of “the incurious,” who condemn books they haven’t read or plays they haven’t seen. (One of Shipler’s own books, The Working Poor, fell victim to such an attack, he notes in an afterword.) Shipler, by contrast, does his homework, sometimes in exhaustive detail. But Freedom of Speech is nevertheless a frustrating read.

The problem begins with its misleading title. Freedom of speech is not just a core American value, but a specific right enumerated by the First Amendment. The boundaries of government regulation of speech have been tested over time, by presidents and protestors alike, and defined and refined by the courts. So has the related (and separately enumerated) right of freedom of the press, so essential to journalists probing government corruption, secret-keeping, surveillance, and more, even if its protections have proven less than absolute. (Shipler devotes a chapter, “The New War Correspondents,” specifically to press issues.)

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Anyone expecting Freedom of Speech to offer a comprehensive legal or constitutional history of the First Amendment will be disappointed.

Having written two previous books on civil liberties (Rights at Risk and The Rights of the People), Shipler knows the territory. But anyone expecting Freedom of Speech to offer a comprehensive legal or constitutional history of the First Amendment will be disappointed.

Nor does Shipler linger in the realm of philosophy. In his introduction, he contrasts the United States’ more expansive free-speech tradition with laws banning hate speech in other democracies, including Canada, Australia, and Germany. But he stops short of teasing out the cultural and political implications of that distinction.

The book that Shipler has written instead is both highly reportorial and thoroughly idiosyncratic. It is divided into sections, on “Books,” “Secrets,” “Stereotypes,” “Politics,” and “Plays,” that seem to invite an sat question on typology (“Which of these is not like the others?”). The hodgepodge of issues treated by Freedom of Speech includes the role of money in politics, the cultural permissibility of racial stereotyping, and the Christian right’s power over school curricula.

“Freedom of speech implies the freedom to hear,” Shipler writes. “The unheard lament flutters and fails. So ideas do not have to be censored to hide . . . . They are concealed in the confusing clatter of argument. They are hidden by a lack of funding. They are confined to enclaves of narrow interest.”

Shipler is particularly interested in the penalties exacted for speech and writing that violate our ever-changing cultural and workplace norms. “We can all imagine that we’d sacrifice ourselves for a greater good,” he writes, “but we find out only when we get to the crossroads.”

The country Shipler traverses in search of examples turns out to be a patchwork of courage and cowardice, tolerance and prejudice. Sitting in on high school classes, Shipler interviews students, as well as parents and teachers. He secures access to a post-9/11 training session for would-be anti-Muslim activists. He spends months embedded at Theater J, a spunky Jewish-oriented theater in the nation’s capital, whose artistic director, the playwright Ari Roth, is one of the book’s many heroes.

The country Shipler traverses in search of examples turns out to be a patchwork of courage and cowardice, tolerance and prejudice.

Shipler generally tries to solicit diverse perspectives, recapitulating at sometimes tedious length the arguments of those with whom he obviously disagrees. He himself is “as close to … an absolutist on the First Amendment as possible without actually being one.” He notes that the distinction between (protected) symbolic speech and (illegal) intimidation can be murky. He supports compelling reporters to testify about confidential sources only in cases, for example, of “a deadly crime being planned . . . or an ongoing threat, such as sex trafficking or child pornography” that a journalist’s testimony could halt. He worries, too, about the potential for prosecutorial abuse of those exceptions.

Shipler begins with a 2012 book controversy in Michigan’s Plymouth-Canton school district. The relatively obscure work under assault was Waterland (1983), by the British novelist Graham Swift, which contains a passage about a teenage sexual encounter. When a father, Matt Dame, complained, the school superintendent withdrew Waterland from the curriculum without consulting even the high school principal.

Afterwards, “the book, ponderous and soporific to some, was suddenly intriguing,” Shipler writes; the local bookstore sold out, and the public library had to order more copies. The attempt at censorship backfired and then ended, with the superintendent admitting error.

Shipler takes the time to interview Dame, his wife, and another objector. Their concerns reflect anxiety over the liberalization of sexual mores, as well as their conservative politics and, in Dame’s case, a lack of literary sophistication. “Here was a literal thinker who did not abide the metaphor, the allegory, the surreal as avenues into human understanding,” Shipler writes. “Alongside politics and religion, this revealed another divide, which separated those who saw literature as poetically illuminating from those who did not.”

Shipler details the pedagogical rationale for teaching Waterland, “an accessible introduction to a literary form known as postmodern nonlinear structure.” The book was supposed to be studied as a prelude to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with a similarly nonlinear narrative and graphic sexual content, to which Dame and others had also objected.

Without having read Waterland first (the teachers involved somehow never found a substitute), the Advanced Placement English students struggled to understand Beloved, Shipler reports. On the bright side, the controversy opened up new lines of communication with their parents, many of whom organized against the book’s removal. At a more philosophical level, Shipler unearths this consolation: “Fighting the written word acknowledges its power.”

From the heartland, Shipler turns to Washington and government whistleblowers, again leaving no doubt of his sympathies. Thomas Tamm, a career prosecutor detailed from the Justice Department to the CIA, was a source for The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series on illegal government surveillance. When his role was discovered, he resigned his job; he was called before a grand jury, but never charged. When Shipler interviews him, he is a financially struggling defense attorney, shunned by most of his former friends and colleagues.

Thomas Drake’s childhood abuse by a violent, mentally ill father fueled his passion for justice. As a National Security Agency employee outraged by both wasteful spending and illegal surveillance, Drake complained to his bosses, cooperated with federal investigators, and eventually spoke to a Baltimore Sun reporter. Rather than “remain silent” and “be complicit in the subversion of the Constitution . . . I chose to say something,” he explains. Drake was indicted by a grand jury under the 1917 Espionage Act, pled guilty to a misdemeanor to end his legal ordeal, and found a job at an Apple Store in Bethesda, Maryland.

In “The New War Correspondents,” Shipler talks about the challenges and tactics of journalists covering national security, who dodge surveillance rather than bullets. The star of this chapter is The New York Times’ James Risen, who fought for years, facing prison, to protect the confidentiality of his sources. Risen was investigated, monitored, and surveilled. In the end, the government did not call Risen to testify in the espionage trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee, convicting Sterling without him. But the larger problem remains. “In fact,” Shipler chillingly reports, “officials have told some journalists that there is no longer any need to try to force reporters to identify their sources, so sweeping is the surveillance of communications.”

Shipler then switches gears entirely, describing cultural taboos against racist discourse (and how they seem not to apply to big-name television and radio personalities). While African Americans and Jews are mostly protected, he writes, “Arabs and Muslims have been mostly outside the defenses and are just beginning to find their way into the peripheral zones of protected status.” By sitting in on a training session for anti-Muslim activists, he explores the “subculture of belief” that “radical Islam seeks to infiltrate, subvert, and conquer Western civilization and institutions”—a view he finds wildly overblown.

Next, he bounces to two chapters on the role of money in politics, the relative silence of the poor, and the impacts of both on American democracy. His answer to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which unleashed a flood of corporate money into politics, is to suggest that the federal government provide generous matching funds to campaigns funded by small contributors.

Finally, we get three whole chapters—at least two more than we need—on the artistic and financial struggles of Theater J. As the theater sought to expand the range of permissible voices and perspectives on the Middle East, it spurred protests from a group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, which pressured the theater’s Jewish nonprofit funders. The politics involved turn out to be truly baroque, but of course Shipler is squarely on the side of the theater, and especially its daring artistic director. This tale, like most in the book, is rambling and poorly organized, falling short as narrative.

In the end, Shipler’s credo amounts to an embrace of John Stuart Mill and the so-called marketplace of ideas. “When it comes to either legal limits or cultural limits, the real answer to offensive speech is more speech, not retribution,” he writes. “Truth is the best response to propaganda.”

In a postmodernist world, though, “truth” is a shaky concept at best, and “propaganda” is simply the other side’s attempt to promote its cause. Security and liberty can be seen as competing interests, neither right nor wrong. And even the desire of parents to shield their children from sexually explicit texts seems understandable. Can anyone—Shipler included—discard bias and deliver certifiable truth? These are complicated questions, and Freedom of Speech, for all its shortcomings, at least nudges the discussion forward.

Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.