Smith, Freedom of Expression

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Smith, Stephen A., comp. Freedom of Expression: Foundational Documents and Historical Arguments. Fayetteville, Ark.: Oxbridge Research Associates, 2018. 704 pp. $49.95. Reviewed by Erika J. Pribanic-Smith, University of Texas at Arlington (

In his anthology Freedom of Expression: Foundational Documents and Historical Arguments, Stephen A. Smith seeks to lay out a centuries-long debate regarding free speech and press via historical documents. He frames the book as a conversation, including various perspectives arguing both in favor of and in opposition to liberty—though supporters of free expression outweigh detractors. In total, the tome features 188 texts dating from 1754 BCE to 1927, following an introduction in which Smith outlines the themes explored in the primary sources.

Although some of the texts offer philosophical considerations of free expression in general, many debate specific policies. For instance, several pieces discuss the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century licensing laws in England. Several others explore the World War I-era Sedition and Espionage acts in the United States. In addition to editorials assessing the impact of the laws on the press, the latter segment includes important statements from great legal minds that helped shape how the U.S. Supreme Court came to interpret free speech. Other segments enable readers to understand how Colonial Americans and framers of the Constitution wrestled with ideas of free press and libel, what rationales existed for and against postal censorship, and the types of materials anti-obscenity laws sought to curtail as well as the value of the materials those laws targeted.

Smith admits a narrow scope in that the texts come from Western civilizations and are largely Anglo-American in origin; those seeking Hispanic, Asian, and other perspectives will have to look elsewhere. However, Smith purports an effort to include diverse voices from the Anglo-American pool, including not only political and intellectual elites but also ordinary citizens, and he has worked to include women’s voices. Though the female contributions in the anthology are few, they include powerful arguments from the likes of early American newspaper publisher Elizabeth Priestley, abolitionist Frances Wright, anarchist Emma Goldman, and suffragist Inez Milholland Boissevain, among others.

Thus, despite the professed editorial boundaries Smith adhered to when choosing texts to include, the anthology offers a wide geographical, chronological, and ideological variety of perspectives on the concept of free expression. This range allows a reader to understand how the idea of free expression originated and developed as well as how liberties at times advanced and at others regressed. It provides a broad, lengthy timeline in which Smith embeds nuanced debates that deliver detailed glimpses into important moments for the history of free expression, allowing readers to examine those moments from a variety of angles. If one were to pause in the late nineteenth century, for instance, they would find thoughtful considerations of what types of speech should be protected and who has the power to decide. There, professor Henry C. Adams questions whether radical voices should be silenced. Others pose the same question with both similar and different conclusions elsewhere in the timeline, and Smith gives dissenters themselves a platform. Furthermore, the selections address all forms of printed materials as well as speeches and assemblies, stage plays and film, intellectual thought and academic freedom.

Therefore, this compilation provides beneficial reading for undergraduate and graduate courses in law and policy. Consuming the words written by the people who lived at various moments in the history of free expression, students can compare and contrast ideas from Ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, and Colonial America—from various eras of American history—from philosophers and professors, British royals and American officials, lawyers and justices, journalists and activists. Those comparisons can occur on the overarching idea of liberty, on press freedom, or on more specific themes that a professor might select. Segments offering multiple views on specific moments would allow a class a starting point to delve into those moments. However, those segments are not clearly demarcated; the 188 selections run one after the other in chronological order without any sort of thematic division. It’s up to readers to discern which tackle the same topic, but clear dates and titles assist with that. Furthermore, a bit of additional instruction or research is required to fully understand the context of the various arguments. Although Smith provides some background for each selection in a brief italicized paragraph, most of the space necessarily is devoted to the texts themselves—where the anthology’s value lies.