Free Speech, The People′s Darling Privilege

Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History

Free Speech,  The People′s Darling Privilege

Constitutional Conflicts

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Book Pages: 536 Illustrations: Published: November 2000

History > U.S. History, Law > Legal History, Politics > Political Science

Modern ideas about the protection of free speech in the United States did not originate in twentieth-century Supreme Court cases, as many have thought. Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege” refutes this misconception by examining popular struggles for free speech that stretch back through American history. Michael Kent Curtis focuses on struggles in which ordinary and extraordinary people, men and women, black and white, demanded and fought for freedom of speech during the period from 1791—when the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment bound only the federal government to protect free expression—to 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment sought to extend this mandate to the states. A review chapter is also included to bring the story up to date.
Curtis analyzes three crucial political struggles: the controversy that surrounded the 1798 Sedition Act, which raised the question of whether criticism of elected officials would be protected speech; the battle against slavery, which raised the question of whether Americans would be free to criticize a great moral, social, and political evil; and the controversy over anti-war speech during the Civil War. Many speech issues raised by these controversies were ultimately decided outside the judicial arena—in Congress, in state legislatures, and, perhaps most importantly, in public discussion and debate. Curtis maintains that modern proposals for changing free speech doctrine can usefully be examined in the light of this often ignored history. This broader history shows the crucial effect that politicians, activists, ordinary citizens—and later the courts—have had on the American understanding of free speech.
Filling a gap in legal history, this enlightening, richly researched historical investigation will be valuable for students and scholars of law, U.S. history, and political science, as well as for general readers interested in civil liberties and free speech.


“[A] highly significant book . . . [that] will change the way we think about one of our most fundamental constitutional rights.” — Davison M. Douglas , Trial Briefs

“[A] remarkable examination of the impact freedom of speech issues have had on American society. Curtis’s book marks a welcome change from the narrow court-centered approach that many previous scholars have taken toward constitutional issues . . . . [A] noteworthy contribution to the field and . . . an important book on dissent and freedom of speech issues in the nineteenth century.” — Lewie Reece, North Carolina Historical Review

“[A] rich and original study. . . . Curtis reminds us that this ‘darling privilege,’ as free speech was sometimes called in the eighteenth century, did not come cheap and survived only because press and public ultimately realized the principles at stake.” — James Boylan , Columbia Journalism Review

“A rich narrative treatment. . . . The storytelling is . . . crisp and contextualized. . . . As Curtis argues convincingly, principles can and should matter.” — Jeffrey A. Smith , H-Law, H-Net Reviews

“[A] useful resource on free speech in American history.” — Stuart Streichler , Law and Politics Book Review

“A very fine book. . . . Curtis’s book is in form a series of ‘free speech stories’ gracefully written and engaging to read, covering the debate over the Sedition Act, speech controversies surrounding the agitation over slavery before the war, and, finally, the attempts by the Lincoln administration to suppress speech during the war. Sprinkled into the stories are fine analytic discussions.” — Michael P. Zuckert , Journal of American History

“[A]n extremely valuable contribution to the literature addressing the history of free speech in America.” — Paul Weizer , Perspectives on Political Science

“[An] engagingly written study. . . . Curtis capably covers more than two centuries of Anglo-American legal history. . . . [H]is work is a valuable contribution to the history of freedom of expression.” — Thomas A. Mason , Journal of the Early Republic

“Curtis has a gift for aphorism and provides a distinctive voice in studying the rise and fall of free expression in times of crisis. This book . . . belongs on civil libertarians’ bookshelves. . . .” — Dwight L. Teeter Jr. , Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

“Curtis makes good use of both popular and specialist sources. This reviewer was particularly impressed . . . . His treatment of justifications for suppression is especially valuable. . . . [T]his book is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the period from 1798 to 1870 or in the development of free-speech theory and practice in the United States.” — Timothy C. Shiell , The Historian

“Future historians of the law will build upon Curtis’s stories of law and society and the construction of a popular tradition of opposition.” — Thomas C. Mackey , Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Speech is protected and prosecuted because it is an important catalyst for action. Professor Curtis’s history reminds us of how long such debates have occurred and assures us they will continue to do so.” — Ian Drake, News & Record

“Through broad research and passionate argument, Curtis demonstrates that deeply embedded traditions of free speech within the general population and the courts sustained the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. . . . Illuminating. . . .” — D. L. LeMahieu , Choice

“With regard to freedom of speech, the 1st Amendment was never an absolute, as Michael Kent Curtis demonstrates ably in Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege. Curtis . . . resurrects the long-neglected and surprising story of free speech in 18th and 19th Century America and reveals that the right to political expression, which we take for granted today, was often in jeopardy and even dangerous to exercise.” — James L. Swanson , Chicago Tribune

"Curtis is a brilliant storyteller. His free speech narratives will benefit scholars who read for business and history buffs who read for fun. The prose is clear, the tales fascinating." — Mark A. Graber , William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal

"Curtis offers a deep and careful exploration of a series of historical struggles for freedom of expression. . . . [A] series of powerful chapters . . . . Curtis offers a profound defense of free speech in all times and in all places." — Paul Finkelman , William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal

"Curtis' book reinforces the fundamental principle upon which this nation was founded-that governments are instituted by us to secure our inalienable rights, and that all just powers of government are derived from our 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." — Wilson Huhn , Constitutional Commentary

“Free Speech, ‘The People’s Darling Privilege’ provides insight into why the term ‘states rights’ has become so mistrusted [and] a rare view into free-speech violations in the United States before the 20th century.” — Jim Schlosser , News & Record

"Provide[s] law students with lessons from history that can help foster an understanding of constitutional law." — Larry Evans , Free Lance-Star (Fredricksburg VA)

“Mr. Curtis, as always, is free of legalese; with clarity and deep knowledge, he shows how our freedoms are nourished more insistently by the people than by the courts.” — Nat Hentoff

“Curtis fills in a missing piece of our social history—the social history of political dissent and of agitative speech during nearly six decades, culminating in the Civil War and the adoption of the three Reconstruction Amendments.” — William W. Van Alstyne, Duke University School of Law

“Michael Kent Curtis's first book, No State Shall Abridge, was one of the most important and most impressive works of constitutional scholarship of the late twentieth century.  This second book is a worthy successor, building on a decade of painstaking scholarship and filled with fascinating tales and keen insights.  Until Curtis came along, many of the most important chapters in the story of  American free expression had been all but lost. Now, thanks to Curtis, they are found—and what a find it is!  No law professor I know handles constitutional history better than Curtis—he is a national treasure.” — Akhil Reed Amar, author of The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction

“This book is a major contribution to scholarship on the history of free speech in the United States from 1800 through the Civil War.” — David Rabban, University of Texas School of Law

“This engrossing book recounts a series of remarkable stories about our country's hard-fought battles for freedom of expression. Taken together, these often-inspiring tales show how our current reverence for free speech evolved and emerged painfully through Americans' bitter and sometimes bloody experience. Free Speech: ‘The People's Darling Privilege’ is a must-read for everyone who cares about the First Amendment.” — Nadine Strossen, President, American Civil Liberties Union and Professor, New York Law School


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Michael Kent Curtis is Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law. He is the author of No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights, also published by Duke University Press.

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Winner, 2001 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award

Winner, 2001 Mayflower Cup for Nonfiction, North Carolina Literary and Historical Association

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Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2529-1
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