Chris Finan was born to be a champion of free speech. A child of the 1960s, Finan was raised by two liberal parents and fondly remembers attending his first antiwar rally. As he notes in discussing his new book, How Free Speech Saved Democracy (Truth to Power), without protections afforded by the First Amendment those Vietnam War protests might never have happened.

The message Finan, now executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, is most intent on communicating in his book is that there’s no better ally to help marginalized and oppressed groups move forward than free speech. Despite the guarantee enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, free speech did not start to gain legal protections until the 1920s. During WWI, people could be, and were, jailed for speaking out against Woodrow Wilson and the war.

The progress made over the years in expanding First Amendment protections has let many people take free speech for granted, Finan believes. He acknowledges that given recent events, including the January 6 insurrection, it can be difficult to make a convincing argument to progressives and young people about the importance of free speech. But, he insists,“If you don’t fight for free speech, you can lose it.”

Finan cites recently resurgent book banning efforts as reminiscent of challenges in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Finan was with the industry trade group Media Coalition at the time and recalls how Judy Blume’s books, because of the way they addressed children and sexuality, served as a lightning rod for those looking to pull titles from schools and libraries. “This current crisis over education,” he says, “should help us demonstrate that, once again, censorship is a real problem for progressive values.”

He reiterates the importance of protecting free speech for all, noting that NCAC has defended the rights of conservative authors to get their books published and for conservative speakers to be heard on college campuses. “We’re concerned about efforts to disrupt that freedom,” Finan says, “because it can boomerang. It justifies those on the other side trying to impose their own restrictions.”

In today’s highly polarized, social media–soaked society, Finan appreciates that young people are dealing with issues that his generation never faced. Still, he says, he hopes the new fights over book banning will give everyone “a reason to rethink the importance of allowing others to speak so that we all have the freedom to speak.”

Chris Finan will be in conversation with PW editorial director Jim Milliot on Tuesday, May 24, 3:30–4 p.m. ET.

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