Even the choir needs preaching

Friday, September 26, 1997

How many of you have heard of Jock Sturges — either the man or the
book?


Both have provoked outrage and demonstrations during the past few weeks
at more than 40 bookstores across the nation. Some of the protesters have entered the
stores and prevented customers from buying the books; others actually have ripped pages
from those books.


Sturges is a well-known fine arts photographer, whose work has been
exhibited in a number of museums. His new book contains nude photographs, some of them of
minors.


That enrages Randall Terry, known for his aggressive anti-abortion
tactics as the head of Operation Rescue, but now the head of a group called Loyal
Opposition, whose members are going after the Jock Sturges book with a vengeance.


I don’t know about you, but I get angry when I see someone dog-ear
the page of a book to mark their place. Ripping the pages from a book is a whole new
dimension of outrage. Protests, picketing and pamphleting are time-honored First Amendment
freedoms, but the destruction of books and the proliferation of self-appointed arbiters of
what we can and what we cannot read reflect the fickleness of public support for
free-expression rights today.


Here are more examples of that fickleness — from a long and varied
litany of assault on free-speech freedoms we are facing today:


  • This
    week, the halls of Congress were filled with more calls for censoring the Internet as the
    federal government’s self-induced cyberpanic careened from pedophilia to privacy to
    paranoia over bomb and missile secrets.

  • The same panic has infected local governments, too. From one end
    of the nation to the other — from Austin to Boston, from Loudon County, Va., to San Jose
    — city and county officials are deciding whether to install filters — what some of us
    call censorware — on the Internet in public libraries.

  • Local prosecutors are drafting citizen decency squads to roam counties in search of dirty comic
    boks and dirty videos. You’ve no doubt heard about “The Tin Drum” videos
    being seized from video stores, the public library and people’s homes in Oklahoma
    earlier this summer.

  • Our schools aren’t even a haven from the blue noses. A St. Louis high school junior elected class president won’t be allowed to take office because he campaigned on a safe-sex platform, and here in San Francisco student journalists were told by school officials that they wouldn’t be allowed to accept an award from Playboy.

  • In Texas and Maryland, legislators are trying to ban state investments in music companies producing offensive lyrics, and the Michigan Senate has tried to keep young people out of concerts by artists whose records carry parental advisories.

  • The list goes on and on. No First Amendment freedom goes unchallenged.


    • In religion, a judge wants to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, citizen groups want creationism taught in public schools, and members of Congress are considering an amendment to the Constitution that would allow prayer in school.

    • In speech, not a day goes by that a painting, a lyric, a play or a movie isn’t targeted for censorship.

    • The press is constantly under siege, battling $220 million-dollar libel awards, new legal strategies by plaintiffs called “trash torts,” and state and federal lawmakers using the saga of the princess and the paparazzi to propose limits on coverage of public figures.

    • Assembly certainly isn’t sacrosanct, as literally hundreds of communities across this nation ignore the First Amendment and court rulings to impose curfews on young people.

    • The right of petition is a truly orphan freedom as no one wants to defend lobbyists and as public officials, developers and corporations file SLAPP suits against citizen activists.

    • As I said, the list goes on and on. In the midst of all this, we have to ask ourselves the question: Are such constant attacks on free expression indicators of the First Amendment’s poor health? Or are they symptoms of a larger illness in our society? Is democracy itself diseased?


      Each day of this nation’s life, in meetings of school boards,
      library boards, city councils, state legislatures and Congress itself, elected officials
      rise on behalf of a censor-minded citizenry and proclaim, “I believe in the First
      Amendment, but …” Then follows yet another proposal to regulate our speech
      in order to elevate our lives.


      Thus we have one of the more exquisite ironies of a freedom-loving
      society: Americans truly believe they believe in free speech. Still, there is that “but,”
      that qualification of their commitment to the rights and values embedded in the 45 words
      of the First Amendment.


      Suvey after survey tellls us that Americans stand fast in their support
      of the general notion of free speech — the First Amendment in the abstract. In the
      particulars, however, we waver. When asked to countenance the very speech the First
      Amendment was drawn to protect — the speech of the radical, the rascal, even the
      revolting — we become unsure.


      Indeed we believe in free speech for ourselves, but for the most part we
      are not so sure about others, especially those whose words offend our taste, corrupt our
      children or challenge our convictions.


      The First Amendment has served this nation well for more than two
      centuries but its lesson still has not taken with most Americans, or their leaders. Too
      many of us do not believe our democracy is strong enough to survive words uttered by those
      who sometimes cross that line between liberty and license.


      In times of chaos or confusion, even the First Amendment’s most
      fervid advocates experience misgivings. There is a little bit of the censor in each of us.
      Whether it is indecency, violence, extremism, flag-burning, New Age religion, rap lyrics,
      racism, sexism or just cultural coarseness, there always seems to be something we just
      can’t abide.


      “I believe in the First Amendment, but … .”


      So, First Amendment freedoms endure attacks from the left, the right and
      the middle of the political spectrum. They come from all sectors of our society.


      In the academic world, Catherine MacKinnon, Stanley Fish, Cass Sunstein,
      Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado and a host of other esteemed scholars articulate a vision of
      our future where the First Amendment remains important, but not all-important. In their
      view, civil rights trump civil liberties instead of existing in harmony.


      In the religious world, many are not content with merely protesting
      indecency and immorality in books, movies, television, the Internet; instead, they want
      the courts and legislatures to impose an approved and ordered view of the world on
      everyone.


      In the political world, many lawmakers are all too happy to oblige — up
      to and including altering the First Amendment itself with constitutional amendments to ban
      flag-burning, to allow prayer in public schools, and to curb political speech in the name
      of campaign finance reform.


      There is, of course, a popular torrent feeding all these streams. Among
      ordinary citizens, there is an unease about speech that is too free. There is a feeling
      that society is best served by protecting First Amendment freedoms only when they
      are put in the service of higher social, political or religious interests.


      Fortunately, the courts generally turn aside the more intemperate
      attacks on the First Amendment and ameliorate the power of government, the will of the
      majority or the whim of the moment to stifle and silence speech.


      But the attcks keep coming. And the losses mount.


      What can be done? What needs to be done? I don’t think there’s
      any secret weapon, any one approach. Instead it’s more of what we’ve been doing
      — and with even more passion.


      Steps to protect the First Amendment

      Obviously, great good is
      accomplished by the sort of groups that convened this third annual First Amendment
      assembly. We must get together to inventory the problems, to develop solutions, to enlist
      others in the cause, and to rejuvenate flagging spirits.

      But the
      friends of free speech need hard data, a baseline, a trend line to inform the public, to
      teach the teachers, and to disarm the eloquence and emotion of those who would riddle the
      First Amendment with exceptions, exemptions and footnotes.


      That was the goal of a year-long project at the Freedom Forum that will
      produce in early November a state-of-the-First Amendment report. Donna Demac, author,
      scholar and lawyer, spent the last year at The Freedom Forum researching and writing this
      report. The idea was to create an instrument that takes the measure of legal trends,
      scholarly thought and public attitudes.


      In addition, we commissioned a national poll by the Roper Center to
      survey people’s attitudes. The poll found that the First Amendment, at least in the
      abstract, is alive and well. But it also found that among Americans there is a disturbing
      willingness to restrict specific kinds of speech, a distressing polarization among
      respondents on some issues, and a disappointing level of education about constitutional
      rights.


      Donna Demac’s report chronicles the history of First Amendment
      struggles and catalogues contemporary attempts to diminish its rights and values. Her
      findings remind us just how fragile those freedoms are.


      Assaults on free speech used to come from the occasional individual or
      small groups. Today those assaults are more likely to come from much larger, well-financed
      organizations. Where the former tended to test and temper freedom, the latter threatens to
      subsume it to an agenda or cause.


      Today there also are new voices of uncommon eloquence advancing the idea
      that not all restrictions on speech are bad.


      That eloquence must be matched by those of us who believe that such
      thinking is a false and flawed notion of good social order.


      We must make the case that to insist that some ideas are forbidden, some
      images are criminal, some words are taboo is to rob both society and the individual of
      their vigor and ultimately their future.


      We must make the case that to exile some ideas, to imprison some images,
      to banish some words is anathema to the thoughtful individual and the careful society.


      We must make the case that to defend First Amendment principles is not
      to defend pornography, perversity or perfidy. Instead, it is to defend the tradition that
      each act of expression will live or die on the strength of its appeal and utility, and
      that society will be strengthened by the process of debate and consideration.


      There are, indeed, some words, images and ideas that are perverse, even
      evil, but none so much as the idea that government, the majority or a politically astute
      elite can impose its list of restrictions on the rest of us.


      Those who grab headlines for ripping up books in the marketplace or
      garner praise for writing learned treatises in defense of censorship run the risk of
      destroying democracy’s dream.


      It is up to us to remind them that the First Amendment is a remarkable
      compact between a government and its people, and that compact is terribly threaened by
      those who prefer order and orthodoxy over the democratic din that free speech engenders.


      When it comes right down to it, no one has free speech unless everyone
      has free speech.