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Oswego Professor’s Book Traces Key Supreme Court Free-Speech Decisions

OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego political science faculty member Helen J. Knowles co-edited and helped write “Judging Free Speech,” a new book exploring the First Amendment opinions of nine key justices over the course of 100 years of Supreme Court decisions.

The book, co-edited by Steven B. Lichtman of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, traces important developments in the jurisprudence of free speech and expression, from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. through William J. Brennan and on to Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer of today’s court.

Publication of the 300-page book from Palgrave MacMillan coincides with Constitution Day, Sept. 17.

Knowles, born a Briton and now a U.S. citizen, said she is delighted with that choice; she has studied the seminal document of American democracy since she came to this country after her undergraduate years.

Knowles, who returned to SUNY Oswego this fall after five years as a visiting faculty member at Whitman, Grinnell and Skidmore colleges, said the book helps close a gap in the literature about free speech, particularly among textbooks for courses on the First Amendment or civil liberties.

“First and foremost, this is a book for classroom use,” said Knowles. “We wanted it to be accessible to students. We made a conscious decision that all of the chapters would talk to each other, to ensure that each chapter was consistent with the others; we wanted there to be a timeline of important elements running through the book.”

Deciding cases with disparate facts — from burning a draft card to the funding of political campaigns — the Supreme Court over the last century has produced decisions that can appear to be “a veritable crazy quilt” of rules and tests for what constitutes free speech and expression, she said.

“If it’s a crazy quilt of rules, then we really have to look in the decisions for explaining those rules,” Knowles said.

“We are very proud of this work,” she added. “We think the contributors have done a — I want to say a superb job, but that doesn’t even come close — they’ve done a herculean job of providing chapters which would stand alone, but which when read in sequence or read together really do show the threads that have built up over time.”

Kennedy’s prose

Renowned to this point as a scholar of the work of Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Knowles trusts that her book will help broaden that view.

“One of the things I like about this book is, although I did the chapter on Kennedy, it allows me to a certain extent to leave behind, as a previous chapter in my life, that label as a Kennedy scholar,” she said. “This allows me to get into broader interests.”

Still, the work of Kennedy resonates with Knowles, whose dissertation at Boston University was titled, “A Dialogue on ‘Liberty’: The Classical Liberal and Civic Educational Principles of Justice Kennedy’s Vision of Judicial Power.” In 2009, Rowan & Littlefield published her book “The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Freedom,” a first-of-its-kind exploration of his work that has led to phone calls from journalists around the country whenever Kennedy issues what is perceived as an important opinion.

“His decisions are prone to a very flowing kind of poetic prose,” she said. “Often, he doesn’t very clearly state rules and things of that sort, but he writes in a way that really attracted me.”

Serendipity helped in the birth and development of “Judging Free Speech.” Knowles said she never dreamed that she’d get an unsolicited email from a Palgrave MacMillan editor asking whether she had anything she was working on to discuss. She was certain that Lichtman, her best friend, would be her co-editor and also produce a chapter on Justice Thomas, and he did not disappoint. Knowles then was astonished when Floyd Abrams, a pre-eminent First Amendment attorney, wrote a testimonial for the book jacket.

She’s grateful to all who contributed to the book, and believes their faith in it will be redeemed by the ongoing importance of free speech to all Americans. The Supreme Court remains a bastion of last resort against government and other attempts to stifle speech and expression, Knowles noted.

“The Supreme Court has been a hero,” Knowles said. “That’s one of the things I think our book shows, is that probably from the 1970s on, the extent to which free speech has been protected by the court is just simply upwards. There are constant threats, but this is a very, very pro-free speech court.”