Introduction: OH What a Tangled Web They Weave

  • Helen J. Knowles
  • Steven B. Lichtman


Appearances can be very deceptive. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is linguistically straightforward and, at first glance, there appears to be no room for multiple interpretations. As Justice Hugo L. Black famously declared in 1959, “I read ‘no law abridging … ’ to mean no law abridging.”1 However, even Black, one of the Supreme Court’s staunchest defenders of free speech, was not a true First Amendment absolutist, because on several occasions he supported governmental abridgment of that freedom. He was, one might say, a “qualified absolutist.”2 For example, in United States v. O’Brien (1968) Black joined six of his colleagues in holding that David Paul O’Brien had no constitutionally protected right to burn his draft card on the steps of the South Boston Courthouse to protest the Vietnam War. Similarly, in Adderley v. Florida (1966) he refused to view expressive conduct as constitutionally protected speech. Black wrote the majority opinion upholding the convictions of a group of individuals who violated a state trespass law by assembling in the driveway of a county jail and protesting that institution’s incarceration policies (which included racial segregation).3 Ultimately, Black was no different from any other justice; a jurist who frowned upon any and all governmental efforts to suppress speech has never graced the Supreme Court’s bench.


Free Speech Child Pornography Free Expression Supreme Court Justice Federal Election Commission 
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© Helen J. Knowles and Steven B. Lichtman 2015

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  • Helen J. Knowles
  • Steven B. Lichtman

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