Nat Hentoff is a journalist and author who specializes in civil liberties issues. For several decades he has written a newspaper column on civil liberties that is syndicated in many newspapers. He is also the author of many books on civil liberties, jazz, and political and social issues.
Hentoff was born in Boston in 1925. He graduated from Northeastern University with a B.A. and did graduate work at Harvard University. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950. From 1953 to 1957 he was associate editor of Down Beat, a jazz magazine. He was a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine for twenty-five years.
Hentoff’s books on civil liberties include The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America (1980), Free Speech for Me and Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other (1992), Living the Bill of Rights: How To Be an Authentic American (1998), and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (2003). He has also written a number of novels for young people, including The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (1983), which deals with censorship in a public school. Hentoff has also published two memoirs, Boston Boy (1986) and Speaking Freely: A Memoir (1997), which cover many of his experiences and writings related to civil liberties.
One of Hentoff’s major concerns regarding freedom of speech is the tendency of some liberals and leftwing activists to support censorship of ideas they find offensive. His 1992 book Free Speech for Me and Not for Thee addresses this issue in detail, citing a number of cases and controversies from the 1980s. He has been a strong opponent of campus speech codes that restrict expression about racial, ethnic, and gender subjects. Hentoff argues that such codes represent content-based restrictions of speech and expression and that such codes are impermissibly vague in defining what is offensive.
In addition to his civil liberties interests, Hentoff has written a number of books on political figures, including former mayor of New York City, John V. Lindsay and pacifist leader A.J. Muste. With respect to jazz, Hentoff was an editor of Down Beat magazine, writes newspaper and magazine articles on jazz, has produced a number of recordings, and has written numerous liner notes for albums.
In direct service to civil liberties, Hentoff served on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
References and Further Reading