A summary of Geoffrey R. Stone's Perilous Times

Principal author:
John L. Clark

The government of the United States has repeatedly moved to suppress free speech and other civil liberties during times of national crisis as far back as 1798. That is the point of departure for the broad and detailed Perilous Times. With this book, Geoffrey Stone provides an extensive legal history of the country, with a very pointed and important focus on the freedom and constraints of its citizens to offer critiques of the government itself at extreme moments. Though judicial interpretation has consistently worked to augment defenses for such protests, this only comes respectively later, after equally consistent pressure from the government has circumvented all such existing defenses during the time of crisis itself.

Stone slides sequentially through six periods of war fervor in this study, and he divides these cases into two equal groups. The first group exhibits a high intensity of suppression; it goes back to militant agitation against France in 1798 and it also includes suppression during World War I and the Cold War. The other group, with less intense suppression, encompasses the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. Even in this latter group, however, government measures included such moments as the mass internment of Japanese during World War II and the aggressive use of the FBI to infiltrate and disrupt activist organizations during Vietnam.

In the process of his review, Stone notes the emergence of several additional important patterns. Suppression of dissent has often been used to tighten control of political power. This is clear from the very first case, where Federalists used the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to prosecute political opponents such as Congressman Matthew Lyon. Restrictive laws and actions during wartime have often drawn heavily on nationalist and racist sentiments, such as attacks on Germans and Irish during World War I and on the Japanese during World War II. Instead of providing a check on such persecution, the courts were largely caught up in the nationalist intensity themselves.

As infringement on civil liberties both intensified and took creative new directions, the public backlash, which followed after the crisis passed, pushed the courts to increasingly strengthen protections for dissenters. There is an irony here, though, as the courts consistently moved to defend activists only after they had already been prosecuted, and later officials would consistently suppress dissent by means of new mechanisms.

Stone reads the continued tightening of judicial protections for dissenters with an optimistic eye. He is clearly and openly interested in the ways that the law itself can be used to allow all voices to be heard, even under the most extreme circumstances. Although his faith is unshaken, even given the evidence he has here accumulated, he still presents—with sensitivity—the voices of others, including several who themselves critique fundamental weaknesses where the law and the foundational self-interest of the state intersect. Indeed, this book encourages the core observation that national security trumps open discourse during times of national crisis. How can history restrict its respect to the progression of the law when meaningful dissent and resistance so often forces people outside of its slippery, shifting borders?


Geoffrey R. Stone. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. W.W. Norton, 2004.

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