In his new book, The Fundamental Holmes: A Free Speech Chronicle and Reader (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Ronald Collins guides us through the free speech writings of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Ron is the Harold S. Shefelman scholar at the University of Washington School of Law and a fellow at the Washington, D.C., office of the First Amendment Center.
Ron’s book contains numerous excerpts from Holmes’s great judicial opinions, correspondence, essays, and books. Far from composing the book mainly of excerpts, Ron has provided very extensive commentary and background throughout. Ron is steeped in the history of his subject and has a rich understanding of the law and theory of the First Amendment. There is no better guide to help us understand Holmes’s work and thought as it relates to free speech.
I recently had a chance to talk with Ron about the book.
SOLOVE: What inspired you to write this book?
COLLINS: Long story. It began when I was in law school and read Holmes’s 1919 free speech opinions. And then, not long afterwards, I read Max Lerner’s The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes (1943), which fascinated me though it was quite dated by that time. This was in the 1970s when I was an impressionable law student. Several years later I met Max – incredible Renaissance man! – and befriended him and then helped him, in 1988-89, with a new and expanded edition of his Holmes book. That combined with my work in the First Amendment made this latest book a natural for me, though I don’t worship Holmes. True, he challenged my mind, and I like that sort of thing even when I disagree with someone.
SOLOVE: During the course of immersing yourself in Holmes’s writings, what is the most surprising thing you learned?
COLLINS: There are so many things; Holmes was such a complex man. Long before I began my book, I knew quite a bit about his First Amendment work, including his pre-1919 Supreme Court opinions. So, not much surprise there. I guess I would say I was quite taken by his Civil War experience and how that had such a remarkable impact on his life, jurisprudence, and view of free speech, too. It was the dye that colored everything in the beaker of his thought.
SOLOVE: Personally, what would you consider to be the five most significant writings by Justice Holmes?
COLLINS: Hard call. But here they are, in no special order: