‘Fear of Freedom: When Order and Orthodoxy Prevail’

Monday, November 10, 1997

The First Amendment battle is not a far-away abstraction. It is
real and it is on your doorstep. Just a few examples from this region that
come quickly to mind:


  • In Maryland, the Montgomery County superintendent has just issued a new
    policy concerning student media; you'll recall many of us were involved in
    opposing the recent attempt to censor a student television show at Montgomery Blair
    High School.
  • Christine T. Schwalm of Burtonsville, Md., filed a formal request on Oct.
    9 to have Love in the Time of Cholera, by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia
    Marquez, removed from Montgomery County's 21 high schools. The book is
    on the schools' library list, not its classroom list. Mrs. Schwalm, who
    has no children in the school system currently, plans to file a complaint
    about another Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, later.
  • Several Maryland counties are grappling with policies that greatly
    restrict student media online efforts by banning the use of the last names
    of students, even on their own stories or their own creations.
  • In Virginia, the Loudoun County library board recently passed the most
    restrictive Internet access policy in the nation. Similar efforts are
    afoot in Fairfax and Prince William counties.
  • Many of the same people pressing for library restrictions have conducted
    their own searches of adult video stores, decided some of them violated
    community standards, and turned them over to the prosecutors in Prince
    William and Fairfax counties. Three video store owners are now being
    prosecuted.



I wish I could tell you that these assaults on free expression were
confined to the region. They aren't. In fact, they mirror almost exactly
what is happening in virtually every community across this country.
And in the nation's capital, lawmakers and policy-makers ratchet up the
reach of these efforts to restrict expression.


Before Congress right now are two proposals to amend the First Amendment:
the flag-desecration amendment and the school-prayer amendment. Still
lurking in the background are those who want Congress to hobble the
constitution further with a campaign finance reform amendment.


Many members of Congress are still looking for ways to tame the Internet
after the Supreme Court inhospitably struck down as unconstitutional the
Communications Decency Act.



Just this week, a congressional committee launched hearings about the bad
influences of music on our society, with solemn promises about these
proceedings just being informational in nature, that everyone involved
appreciated free speech guarantees and wouldn't think of passing laws to
regulate the content of music lyrics.


Those promises echo the ones we early in the early '90s when senators
convened hearings into the influences of television violence on our society.
Now we have the V-chip, a piece of technology that would be benign if it
didn't require a rating system, which would be fairly benign if it didn't
require the television industry to produce ratings that please everyone
– meaning Congress — which would be almost benign if it didn't mean that
every network would have to display those ratings, or face the wrath of
Congress and further regulation.


The press faces some challenges from Capitol Hill, also. (Rep.) Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) wants
to restrict news coverage of celebrities and public figures. Our good
friend, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), wants to limit journalists' access to
medical information.


Not to be outdone, the executive branch regularly looks for ways to curb
speech that voters find offensive.


This is especially so at the Federal Communications Commission, which has
shucked its old chairman and commissioners but not its old habits. This is
the agency where many apparently believe that the Constitution is no match
for technology. These folks see computer chips in television sets and
personal computers as a way to zap speech that bothers them or their
patrons in Congress — violence, indecency, and liquor advertising, to name
a few.


So we have a V-chip for violence, a P-chip for personal computers and a
B-chip for booze. We may as well go ahead and rename it the Federal
Chip-making Commission.


Well, enough of that. The list can go on and on.


These are the sorts of things Donna Demac has documented in a much more
comprehensive way as part of a yearlong research effort as a Freedom Forum
fellow. That work will be released as a State of the First Amendment
report on Dec. 16.


She researched and chronicled legal and scholarly trends in First
Amendment rights and values.


Ken Dautrich of the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut
conducted a national poll on public attitudes toward First Amendment rights
and values in conjunction with the report. The results are not exactly
reassuring. Americans love the First Amendment in the abstract. It's just
those irritating occasions when people insist on truly exercising free
speech that gets us troubled.


Put all that together, and you have a societywide fear of freedom.


When Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, knowing full well it
was unconstitutional; when an Alabama judge flouted the Constitution to
display the Ten Commandments in a courtroom; when a governor vowed to call
out the National Guard to defy a court ruling against display of the Ten
Commandments; when we have a challenge to basic First Amendment rights
across the warp and woof of an open society, we must face a sobering truth
about the state of freedom in that society.


In the 1st century A.D., Galen the Greek physician began to apply
leeches to the bodies of the ill to restore a balance of the four humors of
blood, phlegm and yellow and black bile. Today there are those who would
treat what they perceive as society's ills by draining democracy of its
lifeblood — freedom of speech.


If this growing impulse is unchecked, all we'll have left is an anemic
caricature of freedom.


And before any of us get too smug about all this, we must keep in mind
that these assaults on free expression come from all sectors of society –
from the left, the right, and the middle; from all levels, top, bottom and
middle.


Let's face it, we all have certain speech we want to limit: Violence,
pornography, racial intolerance, political extremism, blasphemy, invasion
of privacy, liquor and tobacco advertising.


We all have the favorite media we want to tame: television, movies, the
Internet, video games, compact disks, books.


We all have certain people we want to blame: artists, writers, musicians,
teachers, journalists.


That's how all this lands on our front porches. As citizens of a
democracy, we have a generalized stake in protecting First Amendment
freedoms. But we have a lot at stake as journalists and communicators, too.
Depending on who makes the definitions and draws the lines on the various
forms of speech someone wants to proscribe, the tools of our trade are
banned.


Depending on which form of media is the target of the day, our means of
communication is compromised.


Depending on which profession is the charlatan of the day, our very
livelihood is threatened.


Assaults on the First Amendment that permeate our society today are
neither far away nor abstract. They are neither benign nor a necessary
compromise.


Whatever happened to the notion that the governors should be the
protectors of free speech, not its regulators? Whatever happened to the
sublime faith we had in the essential strength of the democratic impulse?
If there is a moral dimension to the right of free speech, then there is a
moral duty to employ it in the interests of freedom. If the individual has
thought, he not only has a right but a duty to express it — not just to
announce his unique being but to enrich the larger community.


Freedom of speech means free inquiry — the freedom to venture outside the
village, to explore the wilderness of ideas and issues. Yes, there lies
risk; but there lies life, too.


If the Founding Fathers would be outraged about some contemporary speech,
does that mean we should send back the Bill of Rights as defective?


How easy it is to give away those rights, how impossible to win them back.


It is an irony that it takes quite unnatural mechanisms — political and
judicial institutions — to ensure the viability of such natural freedoms
as thought and inquiry, expression and creativity.


It requires a social compact both rare and fragile.


It requires a tolerance of others and what they say and a generosity of
spirit that understands what it takes to be a human and what it takes to be
a democracy.


What a calamity if we let our desire for peace and tranquility, calm and
quiet, order and orthodoxy, turn into a fear of freedom.


What a travesty if we abandon our quest for human dignity, liberated
intellect and faith in our fellow humans, and dash our dreams of a true
democracy.


What a travesty if journalists — who have so much at stake — fail to
recognize the threat, or worse, become a part of it.


Photos by Max Cacas, The Freedom Forum