The Case Against Free Speech by P.E. Moskowitz

The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent by P.E. Moskowitz Hachette Book Group, 2019

Free speech is the first right enshrined in the Bill of Rights. However, according to P.E. Moskowitz (author of How to Kill a City) in his new book The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent, we need to rethink the concept of free speech in America. Over the course of the book, he explores what our current concept of free speech is, how we came to conceive of it and what its future might be.

Moskowitz begins by describing his own experience being at the Unite the deadly Right rally Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and the debates about free speech that raged in its aftermath. For some, all speech short of calling for violence is protected, while for others all speech promoting racism or fascism shouldn't be. “We’re debating where the line is, and who gets to hold the line in place or move it…that line is in constant flux…millions of dollars get spent defining that line each year by super PACs and other political groups and by nonprofits like the ACLU,” Moskowitz writes, positing that since the '70s the extremely wealthy have invested heavily in programs and spokespeople that would combat the spread of liberal ideas so they could preserve their own wealth. One key area in this campaign was the college campus, with its impressionable young people.

The author explores this by looking at incidents that occurred on the campuses of Middlebury and Evergreen and how confrontations with alt-right speakers and sympathizers made headlines across the nation – headlines framing students as enemies of free speech. However, Moskowitz pushes back against this narrative. As they have since the '60s and '70s, students were demanding the right to be heard and expressing their feelings against speech they deemed harmful or racist. In the '80s and '90s, conservative resistance mounted due to “worry about free speech and political correctness was based at least partially on an accurate perception that college students were demanding more of a say in their education, and that educators were challenging the heterodoxies of the day.” What we are seeing on our college campuses today is a continuation of that effort.  The author argues what the alt-right has been successful at pushing the narrative that their way of thinking is unbiased, open to all ideas and that their views deserve to be heard. They have been helped in their cause by moderate groups like ACLU. For example, Moskowitz recounts the ACLU’s efforts to protect free speech in 1976 by helping neo-Nazis obtain permission to demonstrate through the town of Skokie, home to 40,000 Jews, many of whom had survived the Holocaust. 

In the second section of the book, Moskowitz examines two protesting incidents, the J20 protest of Trump’s inauguration in Washington D.C. and the Standing Rock protest. In both cases, the government acted against the protesters, with some at the J20 event facing the prospect of significant jail time for conspiracy to riot even though there was little to no evidence of this. At Standing Rock, protesters were charged with civil disorder even though their protests were relatively peaceful. These incidents were just two examples of the government using a cover of legality to put down protests that threaten the status quo or capitalist ambitions. “From slavery, to the struggle for civil rights, to today,” Moskowitz writes, “the government has proffered the rights of truly free speech and dissent on some and not others.” Moskowitz gives historical context to this by showing how the government came down on left-leaning groups like the Black Panther and the socialists groups in the past. The heavy hand of the government has either discouraged further protests or forced radical groups to become more moderate in the face of unrelenting pressure. With increasing surveillance by the government using tools created by corporations such as Google and Amazon, freedom of speech and dissent is increasingly becoming less disruptive and most likely not to challenge the unjust status quo.

The Case Against Free Speech provides a view of free speech that will challenge people of all political stances, not just radical liberals. This isn’t surprising, as Moskovitz makes his leftist leaning views, and his sympathy for Black Lives Matter and Antifa, quite clear in the book's Introduction. However, he puts his arguments into perspective by showing the reader what is happening today in the US and making a clear connection to events in the pasts that have led to what we see today. Ultimately, whether the reader agrees with Moskowitz’s view of free speech, if the reader critically examines their opinions on free speech was not written in vain. 

—Justin Staley is a young professional who enjoys reading and sharing his love for books through his YouTube channel: