Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Finding Jefferson

By Shawn Healy
I am not alone in my admiration for America’s first and truest “Renaissance Man,” Thomas Jefferson. As our nation nears its 233rd birthday, yet struggles with issues our founding fathers never imagined, we look to men like Jefferson for age-old guidance in turbulent times. His resume is well-recorded elsewhere, but Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law professor and accomplished attorney, offers a though-provoking take on freedom of speech in the Age of Terrorism via a stunning discovery in Finding Jefferson (2008, John Wiley & Sons).

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.”


Anonymous T W McCormick said...

People who incite violence are due our scorn, but not our censorship. Mr. Jefferson did not advocate freedom of speech to hear nice things about himself,
but offer us the right to table our thoughts.

9:45 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at