Book Reviews, Reviews

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind–and Changed the History of Free Speech in America by Thomas Healy


I’m not sure when I first heard the phrase about not “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I do know I’ve heard Penn Jillette say that he and Teller have actually done it. Maybe that’s where I came to know it. At any rate, I also didn’t know that it was from the unanimous opinion in a Supreme Court free speech case.

I’ve been a fan of and donor to EFF for several years, and since as early as October or November had considered the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge. So when I saw that EFF posts an annual reading list “of some of the interesting and noteworthy books,” which have “added some valuable insight to the conversation around the areas and issues on which we work,” I read the excerpts of each of the books, and added the particularly interesting ones to my reading list. When I got to the description of this book, I was amazed to find that not only was the “fire in a crowded theater” koan from a Supreme Court case, but that the justice who wrote it changed his mind about it only six months later.

I have a hard time reviewing non-fiction books. Especially ones I like. With fiction, it’s easy to find flaws in characters or plot points, but with a non-fiction book you can’t do that. However, I will say that from page one, this book kept my attention. While the topic of free speech (and a history of free speech court cases, and the personal history of a Supreme Court Justice) could very easily become dense, dry, or just plain boring, I never felt that while reading The Great Dissent. This was particularly impressive, given that the book seemed so well researched. Each case that’s covered as a lead up to this is explained in detail. The author also explains (“translates”) the correspondence of Holmes in a way that makes understanding their significance much easier.

Ultimately, this book probably isn’t for everyone. However, if you are interested in free speech, American history, the Supreme Court, or any combination thereof, it’s defintely a recommended read. The only real criticism I can think to give it is that towards the beginning, there are some conversations that the author lead you to believe were a little more fateful than they really probably were. But by the time you get to the end of the book, all of those conversations and letters really did turn out to change the course of history. And for the better.

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