Cartoons, T-shirts and more: why we must protect what offends

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Why does the First Amendment protect those who are showing and saying things
many of us would rather not see or hear?

That question was raised recently in three very different situations:

  • News reports a few weeks ago said that among the offerings on the
    ubiquitous YouTube, the free electronic video-sharing site that lets virtually
    anyone post clips, home movies and such, was a series of racially offensive
    cartoons that had been out of public view for four decades.

  • A reporter for a French online news service called the First Amendment
    Center to inquire why U.S. law protected the right of self-styled American Nazi
    skinheads to march within sight of the U.S. Capitol in April, carrying signs
    that the reporter said contained racial slurs against illegal immigrants.

  • In Illinois on April 27, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to
    allow a high school student to wear a “Be Happy, Not Gay” T-shirt to school
    while his case proceeds, over the objection of school officials, who said the
    shirt’s message offended some students and faculty.

  • Let’s consider each circumstance.

    The cartoons — a series of 11 produced by Warner Brothers in the 1940s,
    according to a New York Times story — were controversial even when they were
    originally released. In 1943, the Times reported, the NAACP protested the
    stereotyped images and language as demeaning portrayals of black citizens.
    Withdrawn from public view in 1968, according to several sources, the series
    surfaced on YouTube and prompted an online debate on many sites about whether
    the clips should be available to a new generation of viewers.

    The French reporter’s inquiry was rooted in a bit of history, too. Don’t
    Americans realize, she said, that permitting racist groups even a moment in the
    public consciousness could lead to horrible developments? Europeans, she noted,
    had “experience” with such things — and in most nations on that continent,
    public displays raising Nazi memories would be banned.

    The Illinois T-shirt case and others like it in recent years pit
    student-speech rights against school administrators’ claims that offensive
    images and words disrupt teaching, interfere with order or impinge on other
    students’ rights. Other clothing-and-accessory disputes have arisen over images
    recalling the Confederate battle flag, seen as racist by some and simply
    historical by others, and over religious symbols worn as pendants or pins.

    Yes, there may be momentary appeal to the notion that life in America would
    be better if we didn’t offend each other so often. And an “orderly” school
    process would seem to advance education.

    But think again. Hearing ideas and experiencing different points of view can,
    at the very least, alert citizens to what political opponents or social
    opposites are thinking. Those same First Amendment protections that shield the
    offensive speech from government censorship also protect those who would speak
    out in opposition.

    And the give-and-take among ideas and those who express them is fundamental
    to the very- American concept that “truth” will, in the long run, win out in a
    free and open marketplace of ideas.

    The nation’s founders had experience with a system that decided, in advance
    and sometimes with a royal claim to divine guidance, what was “truth” and what
    was not. They designed a system that not only keeps the government from
    controlling our speech, but that also challenges us to speak out — to go on the
    offensive against that which offends.

    T-shirts, protest signs and even bigoted cartoons from an earlier,
    insensitive generation not only offend, but also prod us to take stock of the
    ideas they advance — and what we might say in opposition. And that’s how free
    speech works.

    Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First
    Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web:

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