21 August 2013

Book Review: The Great Dissent

Thomas Healy, The Great Dissent.  NY: Metropolitan, 2013.

Legislative history--the process of determining what a law was intended to mean--is generally very dull stuff: reading memos, committee reports, and testimony transcripts is only fun for the first few hours.  Healy, though, teaches law (at Seton Hall University), so he both knows how to do that sort of research, and how to make the work engaging.

Which is fortunate, because his subject is one of our most important laws: the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees our rights of expression, religion, and peaceable assembly.  While this law has been on the books since 1791, it was only in 1919 that we began to understand it as actually limiting the government's ability to prosecute people for what they say.  That we can now disagree openly about government policy or protest against its actions is directly due to a change in the way Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, interpreted the words.

This book, unfortunately, comes too late.  By recounting one judge's evolution, occurring during the high communist paranoia after World War I, Healy shows the importance of this debate--and the importance of standing against governmental tyranny, something sorely lacking in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when fear of terrorism and the resulting Patriot Act chilled discourse; something we still struggle with as the NSA vacuums us every scrap of electronic data; something we traded for a false feeling of security.  Holmes' courage--to change his mind, to stand against the majority, and to support freedom over fear--should stand as an inspiration for us all, and Healy presents it as a readable political thriller.  This should be required reading in high school civics classes.

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