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A message from beyond: Don't take freedom for granted

When Molly Ivins' dear friend was on his deathbed, she made him one of those promises that honorable people simply must try their damnedest to keep.

The promise, though, the celebrated columnist later realized, was "a fairly ludicrous case of overreach."

Her friend was the Texas humorist John Henry Faulk who was blacklisted in the 1960s, and who fought back furiously -- and successfully.

And Ivins' deathbed vow to him?

"I promised John Henry Faulk that I would take care of the First Amendment," said Ivins. "Bill of Wrongs" is an outgrowth of her effort to keep that ambitious promise.

After Faulk died, Ivins began to fulfill her commitment by giving one speech every month, free of charge, "where it was needed."

As she went around the country doing so, she gathered the material for this book.

But the project took an unexpected turn. While Ivins expected to write a book celebrating First Amendment heroes -- the everyday men and women who protect and defend free speech, and other basic American rights under the Constitution -- she couldn't help but notice that those principles, in the post- 9/1 1 world, were taking one heck of a beating.

The evidence was in every day's headlines: the proliferation of illegal wiretaps, the unlawful imprisonment of American citizens, the government's assault on the free press, the growth of religious extremism, the persecution of citizens who dared define patriotism as something other than blind faith in the executive branch of government.

Her book details the damage and cheers on those who are doing damage control. Ivins -- along with her longtime collaborator, Lou Dubose (they co-authored "Shrub" and "Bushwhacked," a couple of classic takedowns of their fellow Texan, George W. Bush) -- expounds on cases large and small:

*The successful effort to stop the madness of a "free-speech zone" in Crawford, Texas -- the only place where dissent would be allowed near (but not too near) the presidential ranch.

*The legal challenge by Josh Wolf, a videographer who had the temerity to record a San Francisco protest and then resist a government subpoena.

*The eventual triumph of reason in a smalltown Pennsylvania school district in its wrangling over the effort to force equal classroom time for evolution and "intelligent design," also known as creationism.

As always, Ivins manages to be funny about all of this. But she is dead-serious in her conviction that the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, contains "pretty much everything that anybody had learned, up to that point, in 1787, about how to prevent injustice, and about how to stop governments from abusing their citizens."

She's also wonderfully direct about the costs of our lost civil liberties.

"No one likes the messenger who brings the bad news," she notes, "but pay attention, Americans: Your ass is on the line."

Ivins' voice -- in all its drawling, acerbic, storytelling, fearless glory -- is stilled now. She died last January after a long struggle with breast cancer.

But her message lives on. And every thoughtful American ought to be listening.

Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The Buffalo News.

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Bill of Wrongs

The Executive Branch's Assault on America's Fundamental Rights

By Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose

Random House

214 pages, $24.95

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