Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains

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Three major news stories are currently testing the boundaries of the First Amendment: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the funeral protesters of Westboro Baptist Church, and the sale of violent video games to minors. All of these stories share roots with core First Amendment cases covered in William Bennett Turner’s Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains.

In Figures of Speech, Turner explores the colorful cast of characters who have played roles in important First Amendment controversies. These heroes and villains include Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ku Klux Klansmen, the world’s leading pornographer, a computer whiz, federal judges, dogged reporters, war protesters, and others. Turner points out that First Amendment heroism and villainy are, as in the rest of life, about courage and cowardice. The heroes are those who say what they believe, insist on saying it even when most people don’t want to hear it, and have the courage to face the consequences. Villains are those who want to suppress speech with which they disagree or who go along with the idea that some speech—unpatriotic, hateful, dangerous to security, disrespectful, luridly sexual—shouldn't have to be heard.

Figures of Speech tackles the collision of free speech with competing values. Its stories explore how we've arrived at our contemporary understanding of free speech.

Turner has taught courses on the First Amendment at UC Berkeley. He practiced law for 45 years and argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Turner served as the legal affairs correspondent for KQED television in San Francisco, and he has appeared on Nightline, CBS Morning News, PBS NewsHour, and numerous other television and radio programs.

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