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New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis `48, author of a recent book about the First Amendment, said last night that opposition to free speech is mounting in America.
Lewis, moderating a "Pizza and Politics" discussion at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said that while threats to free speech have traditionally come from the political right, First Amendment freedoms are presently under attack from a variety of sources across the political spectrum.
"Now we're seeing something quite different," said Lewis, the author of Make No Law. "The left is also a part of the suppression of speech these days."
During the hourlong forum, Lewis defended the rights of flag burners and shock-jock Howard Stern, and criticized attempts to regulate speech on college campuses.
"Speech codes are against the letter and spirit of the First Amendment," he said. "Any attempt to ban hateful speech is misguided in my opinion."
Lewis said that it is difficult to draw a line between what is offensive and what is acceptable. "What is harmful in someone's view may not be in someone else's. Once we get into this issue, we have to ask who is going to define harmful," he said.
One of the 50 students in attendance objected that speech could be considered an act, rather than just words. Lewis disagreed heatedly.
"The courts have not made this connection yet," Lewis said, slamming his hand down on the table. "They will never be so idiotic as to declare a word a deed."
Lewis also related some of his personal past, recalling his tenure covering the Supreme Court for the Times. "I became interested in law at a young age. I was fated to be a lawyer, but I guess it didn't work out," he said.
Lewis also discussed the famous Sullivan case, in which the Times was sued for running an advertisement with incorrect information.
"If we had lost that case, it might have put the Times out of business," Lewis said.
Caroline Mulroney, who is in charge of the "Pizza and Politics" series at the Institute of Politics, was very pleased with the event.
"I think it went really well," Mulroney said. "The debate was pretty heated at times and I think it was a good challenge for the audience."
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