Book Review: REPUBLIC.COM Reviewed By Matthew Gaylor

From: Matthew Gaylor (
Date: Fri Mar 16 2001 - 00:11:02 MST

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

*** Read the first chapter online for free, click here:

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

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

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.

Regards, Matthew Gaylor-

Cass Sunstein's Homepage:
[Which I might add carries no links to opposing viewpoints.]

Name: Cass R. Sunstein
Work Address: University of Chicago Law School, 1111 East 60th
Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60637
Telephone: 773-702-9498 (business)
Fax: 773-702-0730 (business)

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