Speech Matters

By Zachary Block '99 / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007
It's rare to hear a noted First Amendment lawyer like Floyd Abrams limit his support for absolute civil liberties. But in an early April speech in Sayles Hall, Abrams said that in the wake of September 11, expanded government powers for tapping phones and monitoring e-mail are necessary to counter the threat to personal security in the United States.

Still, Abrams warned of "the in-evitable misconduct that accompanies the expansion of government power." He also rebuked U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for telling a congressional committee that Bush administration critics were aiding terrorists. Yet, Abrams said, it's precisely in moments of crisis, when the government accrues power, that maintaining the right to free speech becomes urgent. He credited the public questioning of President Bush's controversial plans for military tribunals with prompting the administration to broaden the rights of terrorism suspects scheduled to be tried in those special courts. "Speech mattered," he argued. "The criticism worked."

Abrams recounted the story of two New York City men who had been re-cently arrested on charges of inciting violence after one of the men had expressed approval of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the other had called them acts of revenge for United States bias against the Islamic world. Judges in the cases had so far upheld the charges, but when Abrams asked the audience who thought the men's speech should be legally protected, all but a few hands went up.

"Only at Brown," Abrams said with a laugh.

In the end, he said, the courts will likely agree: "Protecting speech like this is the price for living in a democratic society."

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May / June 2002