Stone’s book highlights war history

By Tim Michaels

In his latest book, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism, Geoffrey Stone—the Harry Kalven Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the Law School—examines current legal issues, particularly civil liberties and the war on terror, through the lens of history.

The book, scheduled for release to the public in late October, provides a new analysis of how the Supreme Court, Congress, presidents, and everyday Americans deal with the idea of free speech during wartimes.

The initial idea for the book began when Stone was provost of the University, and considering projects to undertake upon his return to being a full time professor. During an interview with the Chicago Chronicle, Stone was asked about projects he would like to undertake once he was no longer provost. “The question took me completely by surprise, because I hadn’t really been thinking of any projects. I had just been thinking about what I would like to continue to do as provost,” Stone said in a phone interview from New York. Forced to answer the question, Stone replied he was considering writing a book about free speech during wartime. On announcing this, he said that the excitement of the idea “trapped me into writing this book.”

The primary focus of the 800-page book is to examine the history of the First Amendment through the lens of wartime, the time when free speech is most likely to meet its greatest opposition. According to Stone, the pressures of war lead the government to respond in a distinct and repetitive manner. Perilous Times examines the opportunities that presidents, Congress, and the Supreme Court take to quell free speech during war. “I found that presidents are often very opportunistic, choosing to depress dissent during wartime as a way of strengthening their own political power,” Stone said.

Stone also examined the relationship between public opinion and its effect on Supreme Court decisions concerning free speech. “The Supreme Court, as well as the president, are not immune to public hysteria,” he said. An unpopular decision, for example, can discredit the Court, and therefore influence the decision making process of the Court.

The book, Stone said, refutes the notion that “when rights are lost, they are never regained,” showing how after rights are quelled during wartime they are reestablished even more firmly after the period of stress is over.

Such a statement begs the question of whether or not the public should care about rights being lost if they are inevitably going to be gained back. Stone responded that passive citizenship “will ultimately lead to a lack of free speech, and that citizens must not rely upon the Court as the ‘be all and end all’ assertion of their rights.” The book points out that many brave individuals throughout American history—such as Eugene Debs and Williams Kelly—dissented despite the risks, and had a large impact on asserting their rights against governmental opposition.

While the book focuses on the responses of presidents, citizens, and Congress to civil liberties, it is mostly concerned with the role of the court in supporting or suppressing free speech and civil liberties during wartime. “The book concludes that the Supreme Court is actually learning where things went wrong in the past and tries to understand how to prevent these mistakes from continuing in the future,” Stone said. “There has been quite significant progress in judges understanding the past and putting pressure on future judges to learn from the mistakes of the Court.”

The final chapter of the book discusses how the Bush administration has approached the topic of civil liberties in the war on terror. Rather than draw comparisons between Bush and past presidents who have taken advantage of wartime political climates as an opportunity to further their own political interests, Stone lets the reader come to his own conclusions. “As a teacher, I wanted to explain the historical episodes in detail and let the reader draw the parallels themselves,” he said. “This encourages an active thinking process in the reader.”

Overall, Stone finds that during wartime, most presidents tend to react in a similar manner. “The first resort of a president is to overreact,” he said. “Rallying people to hate other people, for instance, is very common for a president.” The book concludes that although the Bush administration has been relatively opportunistic and pushy, its attack on civil liberties has not been severe. According to Stone, considering past actions such as the Sedition Act, “the Bush administration hasn’t implemented actions that come close to other past actions against free speech and civil liberties.”

Stone is on a leave of absence from the University of Chicago, and is currently teaching at the New York University School of Law for autumn quarter.