Stone’s book examines government’s role in wartime

By Tyler Zoanni

Law School professor Geoffrey Stone investigates in his latest book, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism, the predilection of the government to repress free speech and other civil liberties during times of conflict in American history. In the book, Stone examines the lives of those individuals who fought for free speech and those who sought to restrict them. In an interview with the Maroon, Stone highlighted the role of students in the struggle for free speech, the University’s history, and the status of civil liberties in the war on terrorism.

In the introduction to Perilous Times, you write, “This book is about Americans struggling to fulfill the daunting responsibilities of self- governance in the most perilous of times.” Historically, what dissenting roles have students, both at the University and throughout the nation, played during war?

Students at the University of Chicago played a significant role in protesting the anti-Communist furor of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and they were active as well in protesting the Vietnam War. The University of Chicago was a cauldron of debate about capitalism versus communism in the years after the Depression, and University of Chicago students courageously protested proposed anti-Communist legislation in the state of Illinois in the 1940s. Students at Chicago were among the national student leaders in the creation of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

In your book, you write about the unrivaled “intellectual cauldron of the University of Chicago of the 1930s.” How would you compare the University in the ’30s to how it is today?

Night and day. I’m not aware of any issue today that riles students to open and vigorous debate about public issues.

You speak most highly of former University president Robert Maynard Hutchins for his defense of academic freedom in the 1930s. Can you explain what made his actions so commendable? Why does Hutchins stand out among other University presidents of the time?

Hutchins was remarkable for his integrity. He was a brilliant expositor of the values of academic freedom and was unflinching in his willingness to take risks to defend free and open inquiry. Almost every other academic leader of his time compromised in the face of government threats, alumni interference, and trustee demands. Hutchins did not. And in taking the position he did, he won a special place for the University of Chicago in the history of American higher education.

Like President Hutchins, you are also a public intellectual committed to the defense of civil liberties.  How would you describe your role as both a professor in the University and as a highly engaged citizen?

First and foremost, I am a teacher and scholar. In those roles, I try to be as disinterested as possible and to present positions and pose questions that provoke my students and readers to think about the issues for themselves. But I also have a role as a citizen. In that capacity, I am on the national Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union, the board of directors of the American Constitution Society, and I have occasionally represented clients in civil liberties litigation (most recently, for example, I represented Fred Korematsu in a friend of the court brief before the Supreme Court in the Guantanamo Bay case). I also speak often to public audiences, both in the media and in lectures. I believe it is important for scholars who have worked hard to learn what they’ve learned to share that learning not only with students and academic colleagues, but with the more general public. And this is true not only of law professors, but of physicists and humanists as well.

In the past, you have spoken quite harshly about the Bush Administration and the Patriot Act. Could you characterize both in respect to the Bill of the Rights?

The Bush Administration faces a daunting task. It has a profound responsibility to ensure the safety of the United States and the American people. Although I scoff at those who suggest that this is the most repressive period in American history, it is also the case that the administration, in my view, has sometimes been cavalier in its respect for civil liberties. A serious problem is that there is no one in the highest councils of the Bush Administration who has a serious, public commitment to civil liberties. This is unwise and dangerous. In terms of specifics, I have been especially concerned about the Administration’s obsession with secrecy (for example, its decision to close from public scrutiny all of the deportation proceedings that followed 9/11) and its demand for ever-more information about the American people in order to ferret out the terrorists among us.

What advice would you give an undergraduate standing up for the freedom of speech in the face of the war on terrorism?

In a self-governing society, each citizen has a responsibility to question the actions of government, understand the nation’s history, and stand up for what he believes is right. This often takes a measure of personal courage. No single individual’s contribution to public debate is likely to alter national policies. As a result, it is easy for an individual to be cowed into silence. After all, “Whether I protest or not won’t really change anything, so why risk going to jail, or getting blacklisted, or winding up in a government file?” An essential fact about freedom of speech is that it is easily chilled. The effect when many individuals are chilled is the mutilation of the thought process of the community. So, the first bit of advice I would give a student who wants to protest government policy in wartime is to be as courageous as you would expect a soldier to be in battle. The second bit of advice I would give is to be civil. This is not to say that emotions are irrelevant. But the distinctive contribution that students at the University of Chicago can make to public debate stems from their intelligence, their capacity to reason, and their ability clearly and effectively to articulate their views.

Perilous Times concludes that the challenge to protect constitutional rights lies with all of us today. If you were to forecast the effect of the tension between liberty and national security in the face of the war on terrorism, what would you predict?

Absent another major attack on the United States, this will be a minor blip in the grand scale of American history. It pales in every way when compared, for example, with the Civil War, World War I, or World War II. But with another attack, should there be one, all bets are off. Consider this: The Bush administration has claimed that the president has the inherent authority to seize an American citizen, on American soil, to take him to a military prison, to hold him incommunicado, without notifying his friends, family, or co-workers of his whereabouts, to deny him access to an attorney, to deny him access to any judicial determination of the legality of his detention, and to interrogate and intern him indefinitely, solely on the determination of someone in the Executive Branch that he is something called an “enemy combatant.” This position was rejected by the Supreme Court last June. But an administration that is capable of believing that such action is lawfully within its inherent power, is dangerous, indeed. We should all be vigilant.