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Helpful History and Poetic Mischief

Book Review - Volume 95 - Issue 3

Anderson reviews Wendell Bird’s Press and Speech Under Assault and Burt Neuborne’s Madison’s Music: On Reading the First Amendment. Anderson calls Bird’s book “transformative historical research” that debunks a myth that has hobbled First Amendment jurisprudence for generations: “that the framers could not have understood freedom of speech and press to mean anything more than freedom from licensing because that’s all it meant on both sides of the Atlantic in 1789.” Neuborne’s book asserts that one should read the Bill of Right not as a set of isolated, self-contained commands, but as a harmonious whole: “[E]ach amendment is carefully structured to tell a story of individual freedom and democratic order. Not an idea or word is out of place. In short, Madison’s poem to individual freedom and democratic self-government is as carefully wrought as a Wallace Stevens poem.” Anderson concludes the book has the potential to do mischief: “It creates new misunderstandings about the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular. They are not perfect products of Madison’s poetic genius; rather, they are proof that long-dead, slave-owning white men, acting through the push and pull of legislative politics, produced good, if imperfect, results.”

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