Written by Dale Suderman Wednesday, 17 October 2007 13:26Years ago my old friend Jack was asked to appear as an expert witness in an obscenity trial in Cincinnati. Jack was a local radio personality and a stand-up comic genius.
When the defense lawyers grilled him before the trial they asked him, “Now, you will testify that this comedian was being artistic and not obscene?”
“Absolutely not,” Jack replied. “He is totally obscene and lacks any redeeming artistic merit. That is precisely why I believe he should have the freedom to speak.”
Needless to say, Jack was not called as an expert witness by either side.
I agree with Jack’s absolute commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. An open society does not censor words and images. An open society does not stomp on nor ban words, ideas and images—even when they are offensive.
Today I worry liberals and conservatives are both equally willing to compromise freedom of expression for their perceived notion of what they perceive as a higher value.
Unthinkingly they grasp the blade of sword which is two sided and do not realize their own long-term risks for self-injury.
The American Library Association once again celebrated Banned Books Week. Most of their battles are about kids’ books deemed too racy for younger readers.
But the battle over Huck Finn and Mark Twain’s use of the N word also continues. Do we allow a classic in American literature to fade out because the characters speak as people really spoke then—and unfortunately speak today?
Does it make a difference if the N word is used by an award winning black novelist Toni Morrison in “Beloved” or by a crusty old white guy—equally award winning writer—William Faulkner in his short story portraying Southern degradation, “A Rose for Emily”?
Is the word different when used by a rap “artist” or a poorly informed college freshmen in a classroom discussion?
These are the actual questions my friends who are editors, teachers and parents face on a regular basis.
Recently the Bureau of Prisons, fearing that prisons could be recruiting centers for Muslim extremists, decided to remove all potentially offensive religious books from their chaplain's libraries.
With all the brilliance of government bureaucrats they also removed the writings of the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis and many other standard Christian writers.
Only the unified howls of protest from Christian, Jewish and Muslim chaplains and religious leaders reversed this dangerous precedent.
Hate-crimes legislation on a federal, state and municipal level is now the vogue. If you paint a swastika on a synagogue you are charged with both criminal damage to property and a second charge of committing a hate crime.
On the surface, hate-crimes legislation seems like a good idea. Folks who use insult and threaten racial, ethnic and sexual groups should be punished.
But wait a minute. If I decide to spray paint my feelings about the war in Iraq on an Army recruiting center, am I also at risk of being charged with a “hate crime”?
For a decade I managed a community bookstore in Chicago. My primary role was as the book buyer—selecting new books for all departments.
As a rule of thumb, I rejected romance novels because they were bad literature, blatant pornography because we were a family bookstore and titles like “The Anarchist Cookbook” that offered a practical guide to making homemade explosives just because I didn’t like the customers who were shopping for it.
About once a week I dealt with some customer who was irate because of books we carried or did not carry.
Was I banning books or violating community standards by my decisions? To this day, I don’t know. But the experience has given greater sympathy for librarians and teachers.
I remain certain that the First Amendment allowing freedom of expression is the best part of the American constitution.
It is the solid foundation for an open society. But the practical ways in which we apply this to our libraries, bookstores, classrooms and mass media will be an ongoing battle.
You can contact the writer at Dale.Suderman@gmail.com