Dershowitz begins by establishing himself as a collector of a wide array of historic artifacts and artwork. He proceeds to lay down his legal credentials and intellectual interests. This includes a fascination with the writings of Thomas Jefferson, much of it preserved in correspondence via letters to a broad swath of the populace. Dershowitz’s worlds literally collided at Argosy Book Store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in September 2006. He was persuaded to purchase a letter from Jefferson to Connecticut politician Elijah Boardman during the first days of his presidency in 1801.
Jefferson wrote in response to a sermon delivered by Reverend Stanley Griswold. His remarks crossed the line between faith and politics, calling for punishment of speech that is “immoral” or “dangerous.” Such prior restraints on speech may sound severe to contemporary observers, but were common at the time. The Alien and Sedition Acts are but two of the relics of an era when freedom of speech was in its formative state. Jefferson opposed Griswold’s teachings, favoring a libertarian model where the first acts inspired by incendiary promptings invited punishment, nothing sooner.
This after-the-fact form of punishment is challenged in an era of global terrorism. Is there no limit to what an imam can preach for those who use the Islamic faith as a means of violent revolution? Under Jefferson’s model, we would not intervene until a terrorist act is committed, an approach that would endanger the lives of hundreds, if not thousands. Dershowitz, while sympathetic to Jefferson’s civil libertarian leanings, argues for a middle ground approach, yet fails to offer a hard and fast test, probably because the issue is admittedly complex.
Dershowitz presents an interesting dichotomy between what he calls the “taxi cab theory of free speech,” where a government must entertain all forms of speech just as a cab driver must pick up all customers and deliver them to the location of their choice, and a “system of censorship,” where the government effectively picks winners and losers. He suggests that the latter “produce(s) terrible results,” yet perhaps a hybrid form of this model must prevail in an Age of Terror so long as the system is employed “fairly” and “equitably.”
The author alludes to the Nazi’s attempt to demonstrate in Skokie, IL, in the late 1970’s, suggesting that ordinances to silence this disturbing form of speech could have been used to stymie civil rights marchers, too. Modern laws curtailing hate-spewing imams would also hamper anti-abortion and anti-war protesters. Such “blunt instruments” may not even prevent violence and are easily evaded.
I’ll end with a couple of direct quotations from Dershowitz as he turns to Jefferson once more:
“There is no risk-free option. We must choose between the real risks of terrorism and the equally real risks of censorship.”
“Let us hope that Jefferson’s admonition to Reverend Griswold to trust the ‘good sense’ of his fellow citizens and ‘go the whole length of sound principle’ by rejecting the seductive lure of the censor will remain the American way even in the face of bloody terrorism.”