Healy discusses ‘Great Dissent,’ free speech casePosted on December 3, 2013 | by Larson Binzer
Seton Hall law professor Thomas Healy discussed his book “The Great Dissent” with a small crowd in the NYU Journalism Institute on Dec. 2.
The book tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), in which he wrote against the majority opinion that confirmed the constitutionality of the Espionage Act.
Journalism professor Stephen Solomon asked Healy to speak at NYU after reading his book when it was released in August. Solomon also assigned the book as homework for his First Amendment honors seminar.
“[Students should read this book] because Justice Holmes wrote an opinion that put forth the first modern interpretation of the First Amendment,” Solomon said. “So it was a major departure from what had come in the past.”
Healy gave a brief background of the book and explained how Holmes transformed from someone disagreeing with a broad interpretation of freedom of speech into one of free speech’s key advocates and initiators.
Healy said this change of mind resulted from young, prominent men lobbying for free speech at the time. He also stated Holmes was angry that his friend was punished for speaking freely about the Boston Police Strike, which Holmes’ friend said was the police commissioner’s fault.
“Holmes’ opinion marked not just a personal transformation, but the start of a national transformation,” Healy said in a phone interview before the event.
“It’s important to understand that we have the free speech rights we have today as a result of struggle and as a result of the efforts that people made to help us understand the value of free speech,” Healy added.
During the question-and-answer session after the lecture, a student asked if Healy thought Holmes would have been recognized as one of the greatest judges in American history had he not written that dissent.
“I think it’s possible he would be remembered kind of negatively [had he not written the dissent] as a judge who basically always deferred to the majority,” Healy said.
Healy also elaborated on Holmes’ past and how he uncovered the information abou the Supreme Court justice.
CAS freshman Sean McCready, who is enrolled in Solomon’s seminar, said the discussion expanded on what Healy had talked about in his previous visit to the class.
“The [question and answer] really gave a lot more insight into his opinions of what the case meant and what Holmes’ general opinion on free speech meant,” McCready said.
While the book could also pertain to the political sphere, Solomon said it is especially important to journalism students because it shows the origins of their freedom of speech rights in terms of court cases.
“Here, we’re journalists, and what the book is about is the great decision about the history of freedom of the press,” Solomon said.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 3 print edition. Larson Binzer is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.