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Book Review: Compelling Lessons in the First Amendment: Free Speech - 'the People's Darling Privilege,' Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History, by Michael Kent Curtis

15 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2003 Last revised: 7 Nov 2010

Wilson Ray Huhn

Duquesne University - School of Law

Date Written: November 5, 2010


The book "Free Speech: The People's Darling Privilege" by constitutional historian Michael Kent Curtis describes the conflicts over freedom of speech that engaged Americans throughout the first half of the 19th Century. These controversies over free speech for the most part were not undertaken in the courts. Throughout the antebellum period the federal courts largely failed to enforce the First Amendment against actions of the federal government, and in 1833 the Supreme Court held that the provisions of the Bill of Rights were not applicable against the States. Freedom of expression, which the author says "had to be struggled for again and again and again," was not won in the courts, but was gained in election campaigns, in the legislatures, in community meetings, on the battlefield, and on the streets. Curtis uncovers the roots of popular American beliefs on freedom of speech, and thereby contributes to our understanding of the original meaning of the First Amendment.

Curtis traces the "struggles for freedom of expression" in three contexts: the adoption and ultimate rejection of the Sedition Act of 1798; the attempt to suppress anti-slavery agitation between 1830 and 1860; and the military suppression of anti-war views in 1863 under the Lincoln administration. The primary focus of the book describes the attempts by northern mobs and southern legislatures to silence the antislavery movement. This portion of the book contains a number of compelling stories, describing, for example, the persistence of John Quincy Adams fighting the gag rule in the House of Representatives, the courage of Elijah Lovejoy pressing the anti-slavery message at the risk of his life, the emancipation debate of 1832 in the Virginia legislature, and the trials of William Lloyd Garrison and Daniel Worth. Curtis concludes that as a result of these conflicts many Americans came to recognize that the free speech rights of all citizens must be respected, and that this recognition would "light the way for future generations."

The book review suggests how Curtis' book could be used in teaching First Amendment law. The review identifies a number of lessons applicable to teaching the First Amendment that may be drawn from the history that Curtis relates. It lists sixteen topics including the public forum doctrine, the rule against viewpoint discrimination, the counterspeech doctrine, the distinction between speech and conduct, and the enhanced protection for discussion of matters of public concern, and identifies the passages of Curtis' book that relate to these and other aspects of First Amendment doctrine.

"The People's Darling Privilege" reinforces the fundamental principle upon which this nation was founded - that governments are instituted by the people to secure their inalienable rights, and that all just powers of government are derived from their consent. The stories that Michael Curtis tells drive home the lesson that to make these self-evident truths manifest it is necessary that all persons be free to fully express themselves on matters of public concern. Without freedom of speech, democracy is impossible.

Keywords: first amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, constitutional law

Suggested Citation

Huhn, Wilson Ray, Book Review: Compelling Lessons in the First Amendment: Free Speech - 'the People's Darling Privilege,' Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History, by Michael Kent Curtis (November 5, 2010). CONSTITUTIONAL COMMENTARY, Vol. 17, pp. 795-812, 2002. Available at SSRN:

Wilson Ray Huhn (Contact Author)

Duquesne University - School of Law ( email )

600 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15282
United States

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