Cover image for Dissent, injustice, and the meanings of America
Dissent, injustice, and the meanings of America
Shiffrin, Steven H., 1941-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xiv, 204 pages ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1560 Lexile.
Format :


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KF4772 .S448 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
KF4772 .S448 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Americans should not just tolerate dissent. They should encourage it. In this provocative and wide-ranging book, Steven Shiffrin makes this case by arguing that dissent should be promoted because it lies at the heart of a core American value: free speech. He contends, however, that the country's major institutions--including the Supreme Court and the mass media--wrongly limit dissent. And he reflects on how society and the law should change to encourage nonconformity.

Shiffrin is one of the country's leading first-amendment theorists. He advances his dissent-based theory of free speech with careful reference to its implications for such controversial topics of constitutional debate as flag burning, cigarette advertising, racist speech, and subsidizing the arts. He shows that a dissent-based approach would offer strong protection for free speech--he defends flag burning as a legitimate form of protest, for example--but argues that it would still allow for certain limitations on activities such as hate speech and commercial speech. Shiffrin adds that a dissent-based approach reveals weaknesses in the approaches to free speech taken by postmodernism, Republicanism, deliberative democratic theory, outsider jurisprudence, and liberal theory.

Throughout the book, Shiffrin emphasizes the social functions of dissent: its role in combating injustice and its place in cultural struggles over the meanings of America. He argues, for example, that if we took a dissent-based approach to free speech seriously, we would no longer accept the unjust fact that public debate is dominated by the voices of the powerful and the wealthy. To ensure that more voices are heard, he argues, the country should take such steps as making defamation laws more hospitable to criticism of powerful people, loosening the grip of commercial interests on the media, and ensuring that young people are taught the importance of challenging injustice.

Powerfully and clearly argued, Shiffrin's book is a major contribution to debate about one of the most important subjects in American public life.

Author Notes

Steven H. Shiffrin is Professor of Law at Cornell University. He is the author of The First Amendment, Democracy, and Romance (paperback available from Princeton) and the coauthor of Constitutional Law: Cases-Comments-Questions and The First Amendment: Cases-Comments-Questions.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Shiffrin (law, Cornell) analyzes contemporary First Amendment jurisprudence, paying special attention to problems created by various forms of "hate speech" legislation. He contends that these types of speech restrictions do not fit into the traditional "free speech" framework, one that views free speech as a "marketplace of ideas." Rather, Shiffrin advocates a shift in First Amendment law toward a structure that better ensures various forms of dissent. The freedom to dissent, he observes, is the basis for preventing tyranny, as outlined by such notable liberty theorists as John Stuart Mill. Shiffrin's perspective also seems influenced by nontraditional intellectual strands, such as "critical race theory," which closely examines how racism affects American justice, and neo-Marxism. One is left wondering if he envisions a structure wherein some dissent is more protected than others. This is an academic work that will be appreciated by left-leaning legal scholarsÄthose who will take the time to reread Shiffrin's informed but dense prose.ÄSteven Anderson, Gordon Feinblatt Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander, Baltimore (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Shiffrin (Law, Cornell Univ.) offers a dissent-based theory of the First Amendment. He asserts that dissent and dissenters should receive the maximum protection from the First Amendment. This theory, Shiffrin claims, will protect flag burners but will allow for suppression of hate speech. How so? Aren't racists and fascists dissenters from the prevailing orthodoxy and marginal groups to boot? Apparently Shiffrin has in mind protecting dissenters whose dissent "challenges social hierarchies with the prospect of promoting progressive change," bringing to mind the repressive tolerance argument of Herbert Marcuse (A Critique of Pure Tolerance, 1969). Indeed, Shiffrin's arguments about the character of American society are similar to those made by Marcuse. His retreat from the implications of these arguments on pragmatic grounds left this reviewer bemused. Not quite ready to join the Rorty crowd, Shiffrin sees his theory as an attempt to introduce, if not completely satisfy, the concerns of what he calls "outsider jurisprudence" into a more "main stream" perspective. It is a revelation to compare Shiffrin's theorizing on the First Amendment with Thomas I. Emerson's understanding in The System of Freedom of Expression (1970). Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. P. J. Galie; Canisius College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Part 1 The Meanings of Americap. 1
I The First Amendment and the Meaning of Americap. 3
II Cigarettes, Alcohol, and Advertisingp. 32
III Racist Speech, Outsider Jurisprudence, and the Meaning of Americap. 49
Part 2 Combating Injusticep. 89
IV Dissent and Injusticep. 91
V The Politics of Free Speechp. 121
Notesp. 131
Indexp. 199