Transcript for “Nat Hentoff on Free Speech, Jazz, and FIRE”


Look, free speech is to support the right to speech of people you hate.

My name is Nat Hentoff, I am 88 1/2 years old, and I’m a reporter. Sometimes I write books. And my reporting has essentially been, for well over 60 years in large part, about how to keep this country what it’s supposed to be, a self‑governing republic.

I was in the chambers of Justice William Brennan. He was a determined upholder and fighter for the whole of the Constitution. And for some reason I asked him a kind of a schoolboy question. “In the first ten amendments, what’s your favorite?”

Instantly he said, “The First Amendment. From that all of our other liberties flow.”

Now, how many Americans would answer it that way? How many students would? I don’t know how many of these students know –and this really struck me when I was a kid — seven years after the first part of the Constitution was agreed to, the President ‑‑ not George Washington, but his successor, John Adams ‑‑ got Congress to pass a bill that ‑‑ and I will read you the text because it’s still unbelievable to me ‑‑ that the Alien and Sedition Act made it a crime for American citizens ‑‑ now dig this ‑‑ “to print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government.

Seven years after the first part of the Constitution? Well, that tells you, or it should tell you in view of the history afterwards, it’s very hard to keep us who we are. And without exaggeration, where we are now is the most perilous time we’ve ever been in.

The reason FIRE is so important is no other organization ‑‑ and I’ve been reporting about FIRE almost since the day it was born ‑‑ focuses so entirely on making the new generation, and thereby the generations to follow, aware of how important it is to keep this first amendment alive. What I’m trying to point out is that what FIRE does is, in a sense, fire up these students on college campus who are being punished for their own expressions, and whether it’s in speech or writing or whatever.

And that’s why FIRE is important. They enable students who care about it because they themselves are being individually hurt. That’s a good way to get started caring about something. Their speeches put them in trouble, sometimes in a lot of trouble.

And by the way, FIRE does this not only for students, but for faculty members, all across the board. You can be religious, antireligious, Republican, Democrat, no party; it’s all across the board. There’s no organization like that.

I get on lists of a lot of reporters who do this sort of stuff, the cases, and almost invariably no other organization even knows about these cases. And FIRE comes in and because of the power of their knowledge of the law and history and the fact that they get their students so galvanized to organize around free speech ‑‑ that’s terribly important ‑‑ they usually win.

Jazz hit me hard when I was 11 years old, the first music that really got inside me. I was so excited by it. My family belonged to an orthodox synagogue, a Shul in Roxford, and the Shul had cantors ‑‑ hazzans ‑‑ and they were partially improvisatory. And they sang largely improvisations based on, of course, religious texts. And the first time I heard music that made me feel inside that way, I was walking down Boston’s main street, and I heard a sound that got to me. And I rushed into the record store. “What was that?” It was Artie Shaw, clarinetist, playing “Nightmare.”

One of me favorite stories is the really extraordinary drummer and leader Max Roach. He said to me, “You know, you write a lot about the Constitution. What do I think we do? What we do in jazz, we are individual voices, right? Have to be. And we come together, and that voice is different and sometimes larger than the sum of the parts. Isn’t that what you’re talking about?” And that to me was a perfectly organic link between jazz and who we are as a people.

How is the First Amendment so unique? In any country in the world ‑‑ well, obviously it’s unique in China; it’s unique where Mr. Putin is in charge; it’s unique ‑‑ God helps us, or somebody help us ‑‑ in North Korea. And even in a place like France, there are laws that say if you say that the Holocaust never happened, that could get you in trouble.

And speech is not as free as it’s supposed to be here. I mean, the essence of it came out when Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was on the Supreme Court and himself was uneasy and not clear about what this First Amendment was all about. And he finally came to the conclusion, the correct conclusion. He said, “Look, free speech is to support the right to speech of people you hate, whose speech you hate.” That makes us unique, I believe, in countries all over the world when we have that.

Video clip:

We decided in 1977 that we would dramatize the fact that first amendment rights for National Socialists have been denied. And the only way that could be done was to force the issue in an area where the concept of white power or National Socialism was most opposed, that being Skokie, which has a large Jewish population.

Hentoff:  The American Nazi party, which was doing reasonably well, decided to march and organize in Skokie, a part of Illinois. And there was a lot of controversy about that. Should they have the right to speech, these Nazis? And the ACLU leadership agreed with that, but not all the members or the chapter heads. And I wrote about it as if I were Oliver Wendell Holmes, saying, of course, they have a right to speak. That was one of the times when I learned how to become very unpopular.

I remember I went to a meeting of the New Jersey ACLU, and a lawyer there almost hit me in the mouth for what I said. But nonetheless, the ACLU stood by it. There was no FIRE then, no organization with the name. But FIRE would certainly have supported students who said, “Yes, of course, let them march in Skokie, and let us argue and antagonize them for what they say.” That’s what it’s all about.

Video clip:                 PASSENGER: Hey, what’s going on?

POLICEMAN: Those bums won their court case, so they’re marching today.

PASSENGER: What bums?

POLICEMAN: The fucking Nazi party.

DRIVER: Illinois Nazis.

PASSENGER: And I hate Illinois Nazis.


Now, listen to this one. This is the speech code at Syracuse University. “The policy of electronic communications” ‑‑ that’s very hip, right? ‑‑ “prohibits the transmission of any” ‑‑ now dig this word ‑‑ “offensive” ‑‑ offensive ‑‑ “messages, specifically including sexually, ethnically, racially, or religiously offensive messages.”

This is free speech? This is what Madison, Jefferson, even Hamilton were fighting for? And yet Syracuse University is not considered a low‑level university. It permits this. It insists on it. Now, if this doesn’t show you what happens to a concept as it becomes weakened to become a caricature of itself, there’s something terribly ‑‑

Well, this brings back something that struck me when I was a kid. This was a story that used to go around then. The first part of the Constitution was over. They’d had long arguments, but they finally settled on a large part of it. And a woman came over to Benjamin Franklin and said, “Okay,” ‑‑ she probably didn’t say “okay” ‑‑ “what have you got for us?”

And he said, “This is going to be a republic, a free republic, free citizens’ republic, if you can keep it.”

You would think you’d get people going out and committing civil disobedience. I am not usually in favor of getting arrested. But during the Vietnam War, I was among a lot of people who, for the first time, committed civil disobedience at rallies. There are no such rallies anymore. You don’t necessarily have to have it, but you have to have the understanding and the anger of what’s going on. We don’t have that now, when we have the most dictatorial President we have ever had. And to add a little touch of bizarre to this, he was a guy who taught the Constitution at the University of Chicago. I think those kids should get part of their tuition back.

I don’t know how many ‑‑ I don’t know who might vote for it. I’m willing to vote for ‑‑ I’ve written this ‑‑ I would write in the name of Edward Snowden, who has been so helpful to letting us know what the government is doing to us rather than for us. And I think I will write in his name, thereby antagonizing a lot of other people and even more so.