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How Free Speech Saved Democracy

The Untold History of How the First Amendment Became an Essential Tool for Securing Liberty and Social Justice

How Free Speech Saved Democracy Buy Now
Format Audiobook Paperback Ebook
ISBN 978-1-58642-340-7 978-1-58642-298-1 978-1-58642-299-8
Published Apr 26, 2022
Imprint Truth to Power
Domestic Politics U.S. History

“A historical demonstration of the indispensability of the First Amendment [and] … an earnest and timely argument for [its] enduring value.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Great storytelling about the history and importance of the First Amendment, from someone who has spent his life defending — and using — it.” —Mary Beth Tinker

Free speech is not an obstacle to change: it is the way change happens

Uncovering vivid and engaging stories about First Amendment pioneers, How Free Speech Saved Democracy shows how their struggle made possible the surging protests that aim to expand democracy today.

How Free Speech Saved Democracy is a revealing reminder that First Amendment rights have often been curtailed in efforts to block progress, and that current measures to reduce hurtful language and to end hate speech could backfire on those who promote them.

To those who see free speech as a threat to democracy, Finan offers engaging evidence from a long and sometimes challenging history of free speech in America to show how free speech has been essential to expanding democracy.

From the beginning of American history, free speech has been used to advocate for change. In the 19th century, abolitionists, advocates for women’s rights, and leaders of the labor movement had to fight for free speech. In the 20th century, the civil rights and anti-war movements expanded free speech, creating a shield for every protest movement we see today.

Written by a historian who became a full-time defender of civil liberties and has spent four decades advocating for the rights of victims of censorship, this book grew out of Finan’s desire to address the declining support for free speech that is occurring as our country becomes increasingly polarized.

Through his evocative storytelling Finan demonstrates how the most effective antidote for the growth of hate speech and violence is support for and cultivation of the robust alternative of free speech.


Finan issues a full-throated defense of free expression in this sharply focused history . . . Making an airtight case that those who wish to restrict speech will always present their reasons for doing so as a product of extraordinary times, Finan issues a stark warning against encroaching on the freedom of expression. Progressives will want to take heed."

--Publishers Weekly

A historical demonstration of the indispensability of the First Amendment [and] … an earnest and timely argument for [its] enduring value.”

-- Kirkus Reviews

Accessible, useful, and relevant."


I can't believe we're in the midst of another struggle over what students can or can't learn or, as Yogi Berra might say, It's deja vu all over again. It's good we have Chris Finan's new book as a reminder that freedom of speech continues to play a critical role in a changing world."

--Judy Blume

This was a great beach read — REALLY!"

--Nadine Strossen, law professor and past national ACLU president

As copies of Toni Morrison's Beloved are pulled from library shelves, Finan offers a brief but timely work on free speech and its discontents."

--Gary Shteyngart, author of Our Country Friends

Great storytelling about the history and importance of the First Amendment, from someone who has spent his life defending — and using — it."

--Mary Beth Tinker



From the beginning of American history, people have used free speech to advocate for increased equality. Often, they have been people lacking political power, like the 3,000 Black men and women who gathered in Philadelphia in 1817 to protest plans of the American Colonization Society to send them “back” to Africa, or reformers who gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to demand that women receive equal rights, including the right to vote, or workers who fought for more than a century for the right to organize unions and strike for a living wage.

Conservatives seeking to retain power, even, or especially, when they were in the minority, have tended to fight change: Federalists who supported voting rights only for men of wealth, Democrats who supported slavery, and present-day Republicans who target people from historically marginalized groups with legislation that restricts ballot access. Defenders of slavery violently attacked abolitionists without fear of arrest or retribution. Judges threw suffragists into jail for picketing the White House and fed them through rubber hoses when they staged hunger strikes. Government used troops to crush strikes.

In announcing the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that he intended to push the right to protest to the limit. “The only weapon that we have in our hands is the weapon of protest,” he said. “If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic country — we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime — we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for the right.”

Segregationists did everything they could to thwart civil rights protests. They launched a legal attack on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Police used fire hoses and attack dogs to disrupt demonstrations. The Ku Klux Klan killed civil rights workers.

As a new age of protest has dawned, the fight for social change continues. Millions of women marched a day after Donald Trump took office in 2017. Later, high school kids across the country left their classrooms to protest gun violence. The Black Lives Matter movement sent demonstrators into the streets of hundreds of communities. Protests catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd while handcuffed by police in Minneapolis were the largest in American history.

This is the story of how the powerless have used free speech to pursue the promise of equal rights for all, and how it continues to fuel the fight for democracy.

About the Author

Christopher M. Finan

Christopher M. Finan has been involved in the fight against censorshiop for 35 years. He is executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship and the former president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. After working as a newspaper reporter, he studied American history at Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1992. He is the author of Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior, Drunks: An American History, and From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, winner of the American Library Association’s Eli M. Oboler Award.