The First: Book Review

Book Review, First Amendment

By: Ross Sempek

I thought it would be fitting if, for the first month of the year, I focused on “The First.” I am talking about the First Amendment of the US constitution, yes, but more specifically Stanley Fish’s eponymous book about the anchoring, yet amorphous value of free-speech. The book’s subtitle acts as a meta-table-of-contents, and prescribes the author’s opinions on freedom of speech as it relates to the following: hate speech, campus speech, religious speech, fake news, post-truth, and Donald Trump. I’ll do my best to cover all of these in a spoiler-free fashion, while focusing on what were, to me, the more salient aspects of his arguments as a whole.  

Fish’s superb writing combined with an endearingly unapologetic tone makes this book a political-science page-turner. He approaches the gnarly subject of free-speech in a straight-forward fashion informed by the scope of the US constitution. And with a subject that can inspire polarization, Fish’s matter-of-fact arguments (as well as his humorous parenthetical-style) are disarming enough to make you go “huh!” and challenge a deeply-held perspective or two.

In introducing his thoughts on free speech, he laments the popularly understood concept as an across-the-board-right. However, freedom of speech is, he reminds us, only protected from direct proscription by the government. Anyone else can suppress speech with legal recourse, and, in fact, it happens all the time. Think of your workplace, school, or a bar. Censoring certain types of constitutionally-protected speech in these milieus is crucial for operational success.

While Fish can be sarcastic, the text is nonetheless imbued with a respectable tone and mirrors the rhetoric of civil debate. This approach is apropos to his overall opinion on free speech in that, to him, freedom-of-speech should support a measured discourse that, to be valuable, relies on censorship as a precondition to its existence. That is to say, anything worth consuming will have gone through stages of what can be conceptualized as censorship. Omission, editing, vetting, etc. all involve a level of winnowing down swaths of information (speech) in order to come to a cohesive and digestible presentation of thought. Fish prefers this mode of communication over the post-modern obsession with the proliferation of data as a means to democratize creation of and access to information worthy of credence. Indeed, the Internet is post-modernism incarnate.

Fish’s macro-view of the internet and its theology of transparency is bleak. It’s a chaotic realm swimming with unmoored bits of un-verified information waiting to be contextualized by the billions of users worldwide. To him, the exponential growth of data on the internet ironically makes it easier to deceive people. Fake news thrives on continued creation of decontextualized information as it is the limitless quarry for trolls to exploit in order to build their apocryphal narratives. He explains:

“Although it is often invoked as a principle with its own shape, freedom of speech is given shape (and content) by the partisan agents skillful enough to appropriate its vocabulary for their preferred ends.”

The author believes that this outcome, being informed by a popular-view of free speech, is less desirable than living with the speech-constraints (AKA, censorship) that engenders societal good.  

Coming to terms with the unrealistically lofty ideals of free-speech was difficult, but I believe it is nonetheless an important, yet squishy, concept to hold in high regard. While admittedly amorphous and context-sensitive, the right to free speech is part of our societal makeup, and should be a force for good. I’d recommend this book to anyone seeks an oasis of civil discourse in what is presented to us as a modern desert of divisiveness. That’s not to say that your perspectives will not be challenged (they most likely will), but that’s simply another asset of “The First.” It is this sort of challenge that spurs intellectual growth, and that sounds good to me.

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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