Author: Cass Sunstein
Princeton University Press
Cloth $19.95 ISBN: 0-691-07025-3
224 pages. 5 x 7. (2001)
US Pub. Date: March 19, 2001
Foreign Pub. Date: April 11, 2001

Reviewed by Matt Gaylor freematt@coil.com

*** Read the first chapter online for free, click here: http://pup.princeton.edu/chapters/s7014.html

Cass Sunstein is the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and Department of Political Science. A former law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, he has worked for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice.

His former works include: "Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech" (1993), which won the Goldsmith Prize from Harvard for the best book on free speech in that year. "After the Rights Revolution" (1990), "The Partial Constitution" (1993), "Free Markets and Social Justice" (1997), and "One Case at a Time: Judicial Minimalism on the Supreme Court" (1999). His writings have appeared in the New York Times, and the New Republic. He has also appeared on ABC's Nightline, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NBC and CBS evening news and other programming.

In "Republic.Com" Cass Sunstein makes the point that in cyberspace individuals now have the ability to filter out everything they don't want to read or see and filter in only those whose opinions they agree with. He calls this the "Daily Me", the ability to filter only the issues that concern you, read only the op-eds that only share your point of view. In short he fears that the Internet will bring about a lack of diversity and will amplify extremism and hate groups (Whatever that means). He writes of "cybercascades" that brings groups of people together who share similar viewpoints that in turn causes group polarization and radicalization.

Here's how he says it works: "Thus, for example, a group whose members lean against gun control will, in discussion, provide a wide range of arguments against gun control, and the arguments made for gun control will be both fewer and weaker. The group's members, to the extent that they shift, will shift toward a more extreme position against gun control. And the group as a whole, if a group decision is required, will move not to the median position, but to a more extreme point." (Chapter 3, pages 67-68)

He does his argument great damage by using as an example of a hate and extremist group the usual left wing target, The National Rifle Association (NRA) He trots out the usual suspects such as Skinheads and the KKK and fails to mention any of the other hate groups such as American supporters of Peru's shining path, environmental terrorists who spike logging areas, World Trade Organization protestors/rioters or other left wing extremists. In Chapter three Sunstein speaks of the gun rights movement alongside the KKK, God Hates Fags, and other hate groups in what can only be considered as an attempt of guilt by association.

In Chapter seven, Sunstein writes: "FREE SPEECH IS NOT AN ABSOLUTE" his caps not mine. In fact he mentions this line several times throughout the book. He continues: "We can identify some flaws in the emerging view of the First Amendment by investigating the idea that the free speech guarantee is "an absolute", in the specific sense that government may not regulate speech at all. This view plays a large role in public debate, and in some ways it is a salutary myth." He mentions the usual examples of child pornography, copyright and threats to assassinate the President as examples of the government restricting speech. He creates what I consider a straw man argument by prefacing these remarks for his "Policies and Proposals" in Chapter eight.

He laments the fact that in the past the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in a four station universe had a significant voice. But with the advent of programming with hundreds of choices the justification for PBS is diluted.

As a partial solution he endorses Andrew Shapiro's suggestion from the book "The Control Revolution" that the government should support a public website, Public.Net. Sunstein writes: "Public.Net would provide an icon, visible on your home computer. You would be under no obligation to click on it; indeed in a free society perhaps you should be permitted to remove the icon if you really do not like it." He envisions Public.Net to include sections on the "environment, civil rights, gun control, foreign affairs, and so forth." (Chapter 8, page 181)

But what I find most troubling is his idea to require websites to maintain hyperlinks to those with differing viewpoints. His example on page 188:

" We might easily imagine a situation in which textual references to organizations or institutions are hyperlinks, so that if, for example, a conservative magazine such as the "National Review" refers to the World Wildlife Fund or Environmental Defence, it also allows readers instant access to their sites."

Sunstein continues: "To the extent that sites do not do this, voluntary self regulation through cooperative agreements might do the job. If these routes do not work, it would be worthwhile considering content-neutral regulation, designed to ensure more in the way of both links and hyperlinks."

Princeton sent me a free review copy of Republic.Com, which I'm glad they did as I would have been highly upset to have paid money for it. I can understand why Professor Sunstein makes the suggestions he does. In my opinion it has less to do with wanting to expand free and open discourse and more to do with control. Who gets to decide which links get to be included as "opposing viewpoints"? I did note that many of Sunstein's examples involved a right wing organization being forced to carry left wing links.

The celebrated civil libertarian, John Stuart Mill, contended that enlightened judgment is possible only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one's own conclusions against opposing views. Therefore, all points of view -- even those that are "bad" or socially harmful -- should be represented in the "marketplace of ideas." And the Internet is an incredibly free and eclectic smorgasbord of ideas. And just as we have freedom to choose which sites we visit or what print magazines or books we read, it would be the end of freedom as we know it if the government forced us to read or watch what they want, even if it were only a link. Thanks, but no thanks to Republic.Com.

Cass Sunstein's Homepage: http://home.uchicago.edu/~csunstei/ [Which I might add carries no links to opposing viewpoints.]