The Tolerant Society

by Lee Carroll Bollinger

Number of pages: 320

Publisher: Oxford University Press

BBB Library: Communication

ISBN: 978-0195054309

About the Author

Lee Carroll Bollinger is an American lawyer and educator who is serving as the 19th president of Columbia University. Formerly the president of the University of Michigan, he is a noted legal scholar of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. He was at the center of two notable United States Supreme Court cases regarding the use of affirmative action in admissions processes.


Editorial Review

Bollinger provides a masterful critique of the major theories of freedom of expression, finding these theories persuasive but inadequate. Buttressing his argument with references to the well-known Skokie case and many other examples, as well as with a careful analysis of the primary literature on free speech, he contends that the real value of toleration of extremist speech lies in the extraordinary self-control toward antisocial behavior that it elicits: society is strengthened by the exercise of tolerance.

Book Reviews

"The Tolerant Society'' gives rise to… questions and doubts as well. But that's as it should be when a book presents a novel and imaginative perspective on the role of freedom of speech in our society.” — The New York Times

"This interesting and insightful book teaches us a great deal about tolerance and the First Amendment. It also paints a picture of the tolerant mind and the tolerant society and invites one to admire it, which one instinctively does. It paints this picture both explicitly-in several eloquent passages on the importance of reasonableness and intellectual integrity-and in the way it asserts its own position.”— University of Chicago Law School

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Wisdom to Share

Under the principle of free speech, we celebrate self-restraint, we create a social ethic of tolerance, and we pursue it to an extreme degree.

Not only does there appear to be a disjunction between our non-legal and legal responses to speech activity, but also between our legal responses to speech and non-speech activity within the society. As with umpires in the game of baseball, we are expected to tolerate an enormous variety of verbal abuse from incensed managers, yet not the slightest physical contract.

The principle of free speech plays a practical role for a self-governing society, protecting discussion among the citizens so that they can best decide what to do about the issues brought before them for decision.

A commitment to democracy, it is said, entails within it an agreement that governmental power to deprive citizens of the opportunity to discuss openly all public issues must be sharply restricted.

We must appreciate the depth and the power of the conflicts people face when confronted with behavior they regard as wrong, immoral, or injurious to others. For each individual as well as the community, the response taken is self-defining.

Free speech is a social context in which basic intellectual values are developed and articulated, where assumptions about undesirable intellectual traits are offered and remedies proffered.

Free speech is a complex enterprise that has a more involved function than preventing governmental interference in the democratic process, maximizing the flow of data, or protecting the rights of speech for minorities against tyrannical majorities.

The mind sought through free speech is distinguishable from the obedient mind in this one critical respect: While possessing an element of this capacity for self-criticism and doubt, as well as for other ways of controlling belief, the tolerant mind sought through free speech is free to consider openly, to entertain seriously, the possibility of disobedience.

In the end, we must not fail to see the genuine nobility of a society that can count among its strengths a consciousness of its own weaknesses.