Freedom for the Thought That We Hate

2007 non-fiction book

Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment is a 2007 non-fiction book by journalist Anthony Lewis about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of thought, and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The title of the book is drawn from the dissenting opinion by Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in United States v. Schwimmer (1929).

The title of the book is drawn from the dissenting opinion by Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in United States v. Schwimmer (1929). Holmes wrote that "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."


  • Ours is the most outspoken society on Earth. Americans are freer to think what we will and say what we think than any other people, and freer today than in the past. We can bare the secrets of government and the secrets of the bedroom. We can denounce our rulers, and each other, with little fear of the consequences. There is almost no chance that a court will stop us from publishing what we wish: in print, on air, or on the Web. Hateful and shocking expression, political or artistic, is almost all free to enter the marketplace of ideas.
  • The law of the American Constitution allows suppression only when violence or violation of law are intended by speakers and are likely to take place imminently. But perhaps judges, and the rest of us, will be more on guard now for the rare act of expression — not the burning of a flag or the racist slang of an undergraduate — that is genuinely dangerous. I think we should be able to punish speech that urges terrorist violence to an audience some of whose members are ready to act on the urging. That is imminence enough.
  • The meaning of the First Amendment has been, and will be, shaped by each American generation: by judges, political leaders, citizens. There will always be authorities who try to make their own lives more comfortable by suppressing critical comment.… But I am convinced that the fundamental American commitment to free speech, disturbing speech, is no longer in doubt.


Jeffrey Rosen (2008)

  • What distinguishes us from all other nations is the range and depth of the First Amendment's expressive individual liberties against government control of what we say and think. Having researched and written about it for more than 50 years, I can attest that the most compelling readable account of its tumultuous and often imperiled history is the newly published Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis.
  • Anthony Lewis's Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment offers a lucid and engaging overview of American free-speech law. The former Nieman Fellow has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, and this volume puts the skills that earned him those accolades much on display. Again and again, he brings to life the dramatis personae in leading cases, plucks out moving or telling quotations, and explains who won and who lost in order to provide a clear introduction to First Amendment doctrine.
  • Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has encapsulated the difficult birth, fitful adolescence and inconstant maturation of the free speech and press clauses of the Constitution.
  • Lewis comes to his subject with great experience and depth. He was a Supreme Court reporter during the Warren court, when it was rousing the long-moribund protections of the First Amendment. ... Lewis always stood as an eloquent guardian of our rights. Freedom for the Thought That We Hate strongly communicates Lewis' high regard for the courageous judges who have molded our nation's free expression rights into a bulwark against censorship and imposed orthodoxy. It is worth picking up this slim volume simply to be reminded of the growing pains it took to get here.
Jeremy Waldron (2010)
  • Long-time legal affairs writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Lewis recounts dozens of landmark court cases while eloquently conveying the simple majesty and importance of the First Amendment in this splendid account, which ought to be required reading in every high school and college.
    • Bill Williams (February 10, 2008). "The majesty of the First Amendment". The Hartford Courant (The Hartford Courant Co.): p. G4; Section: Arts. 
  • Anthony Lewis' Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment is a succinct and eloquent account of our nation's history of struggle with this seemingly simple concept of freedom of expression. As we know, it is not simple, and the struggle continues. Lewis presents the conflicts inherent in this guarantee of free speech and a free press and makes clear the complexities and implications of our evolving interpretation.
  • Lewis blends a profound understanding of First Amendment jurisprudence and history with an enjoyable writing style that his readers have long come to admire. In our war-torn era where dissent and open-minded debate have become problematic, Lewis compels us to remember the crucial function free speech serves in our democratic form of government.
  • First, the issue is not the thought that we hate, as though defenders of hate speech laws wanted to get inside people's minds. The issue is publication and the harm done to individuals and groups through the disfiguring of our social environment by visible, public, and semipermanent announcements to the effect that in the opinion of one group in the community, perhaps the majority, members of another group are not worthy of equal citizenship. ... Second, the issue is not just our learning to tolerate thought that we hate—we the First Amendment lawyers, for example. The harm that expressions of racial hatred do is harm in the first instance to the groups who are denounced or bestialized in the racist pamphlets and billboards. ... The question is about the direct targets of abuse. Can their lives be led, can their children be brought up, can their hopes be maintained and their worst fears dispelled, in a social environment polluted by these materials?

See also