"Freedom of Speech," by David K. Shipler

Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, by David K. Shipler. 336 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

Free speech martyrdom ain't what it used to be in these United States.

Over the past half-century, the courts have widened and re-widened the channel through which our rights to speech flow. Smut prosecutions are largely a thing of the past (with the exception of child pornography, of course). The Postal Service hasn't actively fished the mails for "obscene" novels in decades. A series of Supreme Court decisions, starting with 1964's New York Times v. Sullivan, have disarmed those who would inhibit free expression with libel suits. Another measure of free speech glory: Lenny Bruce's explicit stand-up act earned him court trouble and a four-month sentence to Rikers Island more than 50 years ago, whereas today, the same material would land him an HBO series. Finally, thanks to the Internet, Americans by the hundreds of millions can create and partake of free speech with few restrictions or repercussions.

Still, there's trouble in paradise, the former New York Times reporter David K. Shipler finds in Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword. Our free speech bounty still produces discord, he writes. He crisscrosses the land to provide close-ups of five clashes: Parents are rumbling with teachers and administrators over which novels get assigned in class; federal prosecutors are muzzling whistle-blowers and journalists; a theater faces defunding for its edgy political work; on the Internet, bigots are testing our free speech principles; and across the nation, activists fear that the Citizens United decision will allow the moneyed to smother free speech with television commercials.

Diving into the rancor, Shipler begins in a suburban Detroit school district where Graham Swift's 1983 novel Waterland prompts a minor moral panic after it is assigned to Advanced Placement English students. Toni Morrison's Beloved, also assigned, plays a supporting role in the panic, as parents protest the explicit content in both books. Here, Shipler is at his best, burrowing into the community to give all sides a fair say.

Only the heartless will fail to sympathize with the parents, and Shipler treats them with generosity, writing in his afterword that he "came to know something of their anguished desires to insulate their teenage children for as long as they can." The Waterland passage that provokes the greatest ire describes the sexual foreplay of two 15-year-olds. The section is sufficiently prurient that no daily newspaper--including the one you're now reading--would reproduce the passage unless it had an extraordinary reason to do so. It's hard to fault parents for echoing newspaper standards. "We're not telling people how to parent their kids," one protesting parent says. "We just don't want anybody telling us how to parent ours."

Still, book uproars tend to follow a standard progression, and nobody emerges from them looking very good. Objecting parents--fretting that premature exposure to sexual, blasphemous or rebellious content will have a deleterious effect on their offspring--seem overprotective and unsophisticated. Teachers look to be working too hard to defend the pedagogical worth of some of the books they've selected. That Waterland/Beloved pairing, Shipler writes, was supposed to instruct students in the fundamentals of "postmodern nonlinear structure and New Historicism." Meanwhile, administrators come off as spineless if they withdraw the book from a class, as the school superintendent did in the case of Waterland, or tyrannical if they seize upon legal precedent to assign books and determine curriculum. (Waterland was eventually returned to A.P. English duty and was paired again with Beloved--which, despite its profane language and graphic sex scenes, weathered the challenge and was never removed.)

Shipler's retelling of the Waterland controversy is full of narrative detail and drama, but placed in context, these skirmishes are isolated and rare. The United States operates an estimated 22,000 public high schools, and only about 400 to 500 book challenges are known to be lodged in schools each year, Shipler writes, making them look like a rounding error in our free speech accounting. His efforts to amplify the background noise of these quarrels into a major--or even a symbolic--free speech battle disappoint. The A.P. English class Shipler writes about was ultimately an elective, not a requirement.

Freedom of Speech fails to scintillate for a couple of reasons. The five big free speech themes Shipler explores are more second cousins to one another than siblings, which means he gains little thematic momentum as he switches from book uproars to whistle-blowers to bigots to the perils of corporate money and, finally, to artistic freedom. All of the book's many crosshatched character sketches and narrative details can't save it from reading more like several overwritten magazine articles bound between hard covers than a unified book about freedom of speech. Its sprawl and lack of urgency will discourage even the most tenacious reader.

Shipler does an adequate job of refreshing the story of the former Justice Department official Thomas Tamm, who was an important source for the New York Times's 2005 scoop about the government's secret monitoring of phone calls and emails. There's potential tension here, as Tamm leaks what he considers to be an unlawful surveillance program and pays the price as an F.B.I. investigation targets him and he is threatened with prosecution for espionage. But Shipler is so clearly on Tamm's side that he doesn't bother to recruit a respectable source from the legal or national security establishments to present the argument that Tamm's conduct could be considered wrong and unlawful. Even if you identify with Tamm, as I do, it comes off as a fixed fight.

Opinionating by Shipler on the topic of corporate campaign money similarly prevents that chapter from reaching full flower. In his discussion of Citizens United, he writes, "A more realistic proposal consistent with the First Amendment would allow government to give campaigns $5 or $6 for every dollar raised from small contributors, those who donated $150 or less," he writes. Again, what's needed here is not the expunging of Shipler's views from the chapter, but a more expansive debate within his views. The idea that the government should repel the deluge of corporate campaign dollars by issuing its own torrent presupposes that government money doesn't compromise free speech but that corporate money does.

If the best measure of a book is how vigorously it causes a reader to quarrel with it, Freedom of Speech excels. In the book's last section, Shipler recounts how a Washington theater that staged controversial works and sponsored freewheeling discussion became the target of a small pressure group, which sought to disrupt its funding. Such pressure is neither censorship nor suppression of free speech. No theater, no poet, no filmmaker, no painter, no artist has a free-speech right to other people's money. Indeed, deciding what sort of art you spend your (or your group's) money on can be one of the highest expressions of free speech.

Another way to appreciate Freedom of Speech is to read it as evidence that our First Amendment rights are in good repair. Oh, there may be a snake or two on the loose, but what paradise doesn't have a tempting serpent?

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