Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: On Dissent

Ronald K. L Collins, David M. Skover

Consider the following events in American history: Do they constitute acts of dissent?

  • April 14, 1865: John Wilkes Booth mortally shoots President Abraham Lincoln, famously proclaiming: “Sic simper tyrannis! (“Thus always to tyrants!”) The South is avenged!”
  • April 3, 1996: Federal agents seized Theodore Kacynzski (aka “The Unabomber”). Over the course of 18 years, he mailed letter-bombs or hand-delivered explosive packages to specific targets, ultimately killing three people and injuring 23. In “The Unabomber Manifesto,” he asserted: “We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system.”
  • June 9, 2013: Edward Snowden, a former technical contractor and CIA employee who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, comes forward as the source who leaked classified documents revealing the NSA’s mass surveillance programs.

Are these individuals dissenters? Or are they guilty of crimes? Although dissent is one of the values America clearly cherishes, tolerates, protects, and even encourages, especially during this Independence Day, it’s clear that dissent isn’t as well-defined as we think. On Dissent by Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover is a groundbreaking and discerning work that sheds significant light on the meaning of dissent—not merely why America values it, but also what it is. Download the full excerpt here.

On Dissent: Prologue

Dissent. It is a word we all know, and yet do not know.

We use the word with regularity in any variety of contexts. Judges dissent against a court majority. Political activists dissent against the establishment. Religious protesters dissent against orthodoxy. Students dissent against an administration. Newspaper editorialists dissent against politicians. Employees dissent against management. The list goes on.

In these ways and others, America values dissent, or so it seems. We often tolerate, encourage, and protect dissent. It is part of our Madisonian heritage. Some preach it, some practice it, others safeguard it, and still others endure it even when they oppose its message. Dissent is a salient feature of our modern society. It is a cultural and constitutional given.

One measure of a thriving democracy is the extent to which it fosters vibrant dissent.

Over the ages, dissent has been championed for assorted reasons. Dissent, it might be said, promotes self-realization and autonomy. It enables individual self-expression without fear of societal repression. The liberty of self is meaningless if one must always conform to majority will. Freedom for the outsider allows a unique brand of self-identity and self-expression.

Dissent, it might be said, advances religious freedom. When people of faith are permitted to question prevailing beliefs, they stand to redefine the relationship between themselves and their Maker. This spirit of moderation extinguishes the fires of heresy.

Dissent, it might also be said, contributes to the marketplace of ideas. It does this by promoting competition among divergent viewpoints. The hope is that, in the battle of opinions, some form of truth will prevail over falsehood, and the struggle will produce a more enlightened citizenry.

Dissent, it might further be said, enables self-governance by civic participation. Such participation is a two-way street: it is the prerogative to agree or disagree with governmental action.When the governed rule, they must have the right to differ from their governors.

Dissent, it might be said, checks governmental abuses of power. When the whistle-blower exposes governmental corruption or malfeasance, political power then comes under public scrutiny. By raising citizen awareness, dissent might bring about institutional reforms.

Dissent might moreover cultivate a democratic culture of tolerance, where all views are suffered no matter how objectionable they may be. Democracy is diversity, and diversity of views is often born out of dissent. One measure of a thriving democracy is the extent to which it fosters vibrant dissent.

Read the rest of the excerpt here.

About The Authors

Ronald K. L Collins

Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington Law School. Collins was a scholar at the Washington, D.C., office of the First Amendment Center, w...

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David M. Skover

David Skover is the Fredric C. Tausend Professor of Constitutional Law at Seattle University School of Law. He teaches, writes and lectures in the fields of federal constitutional ...

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