The Indispensable Right

by Kitty Kelley

Jonathan Turley road-tested an idea last year with a 45-page article entitled “The Right to Rage: Free Speech and Rage Rhetoric in American Political Discourse” for the Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy. Now, Turley, the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School, has expanded his “rage” thesis into The Indispensable Right: Free Speech in an Age of Rage.

He garnered blurbs for his new book from friends like former attorney general William P. Barr (“a robust reexamination and defense of free speech as a right”), conservative columnist George F. Will (“This efficient volume is packed with indispensable information”), and CNN host Michael Smerconish (“a master class on the unvarnished history of free speech in America”).

The professor posits that we’re living in one of the most anti-free-speech periods in history; as examples, he cites the divisiveness of racial discrimination, police abuse, climate change, and gender equality. “Any and all of these issues can provoke public anger and mob rage,” he writes.

Turley’s book promises “a timely, revelatory look at freedom of speech.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t deliver on that promise and breaks no new ground in exploring the most basic right of all Americans. He concedes as much in his acknowledgements. “This is not the first book on free speech. It is not even the hundredth…[T]here are masterful prior works.” Here, he cites the books of three professors like himself but omits the gold standards of the genre: The Soul of the First Amendment and Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment by Floyd Abrams and Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis, who also wrote Gideon’s Trumpet and Make No Law: the Sullivan Case and the First Amendment.

There’s always room on the shelf for a riveting new tome on the First Amendment, for it is the fundamental right that protects all others. Yet, while Turley climbs the tower, he doesn’t ring the bell. Rather, the professor seems to have summoned “the many law students…who have assisted me in decades of research and writing on the theories and cases discussed in this book” and then cedes control to the inmates. In other words, the orchestra conductor drops his baton and lets the timbales and tom-toms take over. The concert makes noise but hardly inspires.

Turley credits Justice Louis Brandeis for “the indispensable right” of his title but claims subtitle credit for himself and his students, who march readers through all the ages of fury in sections that include, among many others: “The Boston Tea Party and America’s Birth in Rage”; “The Whiskey Rebellion and ‘Hamilton’s Insurrection’”; “Adams and the Return of ‘The Monster’”; “Jefferson and The Wasp”; “Jackson and the ‘Lurking Traitors’ Among Us”; Lincoln and the Copperheads; Comstock and the Obscenity of Dissent; “The Bund and the Biddle: Sedition in World War II”; “Days of Rage: Race, Rhetoric, and Rebellion in the 1960s”; “Antifa, MAGA, and the Age of Rage”; and “January 6th and the Revival of American Sedition.”

Turley has evolved from a liberal Democrat who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, Ralph Nader in 1996, and Barack Obama in 2008 to an unbending critic of Obama and his “sin eater,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Turley went on to support Neil Gorsuch for confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court and publicly promote his friend Bill Barr as Donald Trump’s attorney general, while bashing the Bidens for alleged influence-peddling. In 2022, Slate took notice of this political evolution and asked, “What Happened to Jonathan Turley, Really?”

The online magazine concluded that the man who “was once a serious and respected legal scholar” has devolved into a paid contributor for Fox News who presents “himself as a kind of Alan Dershowitz with table manners.”

Turley is not immune to such slights. At the end of The Indispensable Right, he writes, “I hope that this book will explain my own long and at times unpopular fight for free speech rights.” That plaintive wish calls to mind the Oval Office address Aaron Sorkin penned for Michael Douglas in “The American President”:

“We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people…If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up.”

One hopes that Jonathan Turley would show up, too, if only to defend his treatise on free speech.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

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