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Professor Denvir Examines First Amendment in New Book

July 14, 2010

In his new book Freeing Speech: The Constitutional War Over National Security (NYU Press, 2010), USF School of Law Research Professor of Constitutional Policy John Denvir explores the issue of presidential dominance and proposes an ambitious solution: a First Amendment that makes sure the voices of opposition are heard.

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Denvir was inspired to write a book on how post-9/11 national security concerns have affected free speech after what he saw as a one-sided debate during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. "I was shocked by how one-sided the debate was," Denvir said. "The government had a well-orchestrated media campaign at the same time opponents of the war were denied use of the streets and parks to make their case. Our free speech system did not seem to be working very well."

While a traditional reading of the Constitution holds that America uses military force only after a full and informed national debate, the book illustrates how modern presidents have had unparalleled access to the media as well as control over the information most relevant to these debates. This control over the medium and the message, Denvir argues, jeopardizes the ability of the general public to fully participate in the discussion.

Denvir goes on to assert that the First Amendment's goal is to protect the entire structure of democratic debate. Assessing the right of political association, the use of public streets and parks for political demonstrations, the press' ability to comment on public issues, and presidential speech on national security, Denvir examines why this democratic model of free speech is essential at all times, but especially during the War on Terror.

Mark Tushnet, William Cromwell professor of law at Harvard Law School, said the book offers "provocative suggestions for a First Amendment for our time, one that would provide us today with the information we need to govern ourselves."

Freeing Speech, Denvir said, was not written for an audience of only lawyers but for "ordinary citizens who want to have a voice in our future. Constitutional law should not be an arcane subject left to the judges and professors. If democracy is going to work, citizens must own the Constitution."