DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Geoffrey R. Stone’s Perilous Times   


Author (or Editor):  Geoffrey R. Stone

Title:  Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism

Fiction? No

Publisher: Norton

Date:  2004

ISBN: :  0393058808

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 730 pgs, 180 of with are endnotes and index

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL: free speech, First Amendment


This enormous book traces the issue of the threat to free speech in wartime, particularly pertinent again during the War on Terror. The book has many black-and-white illustrations.

There are six major periods covered:

. The “Half War with France” leading to the Sedition Act of 1798

. The Civil War

. World War I: The Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918

. World War II

. The Cold War and “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy

. The Vietnam War: draft card burning, The Pentagon Papers, and Watergate

The conclusion briefly discusses the War on Terror.  

Stone traces the issue with great detail, and often points out the subtlety of lexical interpretation that gives so much legislation a chilling effect on free speech. There is often a desire by government to punish speakers for inciting or enticing others to commit "crimes," when there is no direct threat of lawless action. Early on, the author explains the "chilling effect". In general, the effect of one speaker on the system is slight (this may be changing today with the Internet and search engines), and the cost of punishment is very great. Therefore, the public may lose the benefit of the participation of ordinary citizens in debate. Yet, political leaders have often feared the media and the press, and this is well shown by the record of history of many dictators to use the media for the purposes of propaganda, a process that is harder today when there is free speech on the Internet. 

In 1798, the Federalist Party put through the Sedition Act, as it feared the idea of allowing open debate, but the party claims that it corrected "defects" in English law, in that truth was a defense, that malicious intent had to be proved in government criticism, and a jury trial was required. Republican opponents quickly pointed out that fact could not be parsed from political opinion, and that problem could make it easy to prove something "false."

In World War I, government started with the Espionage Act in 1917, where Congress opposed the most draconian provisions (like using the use of mails), but by 1918 Congress was ready to pass a new Sedition Act. Quibbles would erupt over what was causing disorder. The "Heckler's veto" could be twisted into claiming that the speaker was causing violence. Much of the concern was over resistance to the draft and whether that presented a real threat to military operations. Woodrow Wilson was philosophically unsympathetic to dissent.

The concern over the draft would of course erupt during the Vietnam war with the draft card burning issue.

Government has always been concerned that printed matter (especially when mailed) could cause dissent that gets out of political control. During the period of the War on Terror, the Internet provides new modes through which security could be compromised (steganography), but yet government, despite all of the concerns over the Patriot Act and its variations, really has not moved against individual speakers as much as I feared that it could. Other threats to individual speakers come up as indirect concerns over protecting children from harmful materials (COPA), protecting consumers from identity theft and hackers, which itself poses security issues, and concerns over certain weapons information being so easily posted on the Web.




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