Chapter 2: Should There Be Limits to Free Speech?
Chapter 2 Preface
In January 1999, members of the Vietnamese-American community in the Little Saigon section of Los Angeles held protests outside the Hi-Tek Video Store. Demonstrators were outraged because the store’s owner, Truong Van Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, had hung a poster of Ho Chi Minh in his window, along with a North Vietnamese flag. To many Vietnamese Americans, these symbols were vivid reminders of the terror and violence inflicted on them and their families by Ho’s regime during the Vietnam War, the trauma they experienced as refugees, and the ongoing repression of their homeland under communism. As one Little Saigon resident, Tony Truong, states, “For the communist flag to be displayed in Little Saigon is not just an insult to our community, it is a rusty nail through our hearts.”
The protesters claimed that Tran’s display of the communist symbols amounted to “fighting words”—a deliberate attempt to provoke conflict—and was therefore illegal. In response to the demonstrations, a restraining order was issued forcing Tran to remove the display. Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann overturned the order, upholding Tran’s right to hang the flag and poster. When Tran returned to his store, escorted by police, to re-hang the flag and poster, he was attacked by a crowd of angry protesters.
The incident in Little Saigon illustrates how the ideal of free speech, which seems so simple in theory, can quickly become controversial....
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Obscenity in Popular Culture Should Be Censored
Michael Cromartie: Your book [Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline] describes the role the Supreme Court has played in promoting cultural decline in America. How has that happened?
Robert H. Bork: Consider Cohen v. California (1971), a case in which a young man wore a jacket into a courthouse that had obscenities written on the back that suggested performing an implausible sexual act with the Selective Service System. He was arrested, and the Supreme Court said he couldn’t be convicted. One of the reasons given was “Who was to say what was obscene?” The majority opinion actually said, “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.” If you want radical individualism and moral relativism, there you are.
You write that “Sooner or later censorship is going to have to be considered as popular culture continues plunging to ever more sickening lows.” Are you advocating censorship?
Censorship Is Nothing New
What fine distinctions do you make?
I don’t make any fine distinctions; I’m just advocating censorship. It’s odd that we’ve grown so sensitive about the topic of censorship that if somebody mentions it everybody begins to shake all over and say, “Oh my! That’s an unthinkable thought.”We had censorship in this country up until the last couple of decades. Almost all of our national existence we had...
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Excluding Offensive Materials from Libraries Is Appropriate
Winston Churchill said democracy is the best of all bad forms of government. In that spirit one might venture to say that most people who are ruled by the votes of popular majorities praise democracy, but try to get around it whenever possible. Everyone knows there is nothing that ails them that couldn’t be fixed in pretty short order by a good stiff dose of privilege, as long as it is exercised by People Like Us. Given the givens, however, the best the anti-democratic democrat can do is cage for the power to flout the public will. Librarians are no exception and control as much ground as they can by screaming Censorship (which is always presumed immoral, and darkly made out to be unconstitutional whenever possible) when their privilege of determining what should be in the collection is questioned.
Librarians vs. Parents
Probably the most dangerous and provocative enemy faced by the librarian, short of penny-pinching legislatures, is the mother who is not happy that her child, loose in the public library, has come home with a book illustrating the how-to’s of oral sex. The library is typically unapologetic. Caveat lector: It has no right to censor what the public reads, and the child is a member of the public. Nor does the distraught mother have the moral right to insist it be removed from the collection. If she doesn’t like it, other people do, so who is she to say it shouldn’t be there? If she insists on making an issue of...
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Racist Speech Should Be Restricted
At the University of Wisconsin, a fraternity sponsored an annual “Fiji Island” party, as part of which it erected a 15-foot plywood caricature of a black man with a bone through his nose. At Dartmouth College, four members of a conservative campus newspaper compared the university president, James O. Freedman, a Jew, with Adolf Hitler. At the University of California at Berkeley, fraternity members shouted obscenities and racial slurs at a group of black students; later, a campus disc jockey told black students who had requested that the station play rap music to “go back to Oakland.” In Mississippi, a lesbian couple trying to establish a rural retreat was hounded by threatening messages and phone calls, and a dead chicken with an obscene note was attached to their mailbox.
These cases are not atypical. More than 300 American universities have experienced racial incidents serious enough to be reported by the media, and every year the FBI reports thousands of hate crimes and violence directed against Jews, gays and members of racial minorities. It is unlikely that the number of incidents is merely the result of increased sensitivity on the part of minority groups or better reporting, since it occurs at a time when other Western nations are reporting a wave of Holocaust revisionism and attacks on Jews and minorities.
Speech Codes Are a Good Idea
More than 200 American universities have responded by enacting studentconduct...
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Violent and Pornographic Music Lyrics Should Be Restricted
Editor’s note: This viewpoint was originally delivered before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia on November 6, 1997.
I speak as Chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for the political and economic empowerment of African-American women and their families.
I am pleased this arm of Congress is taking the time to address the urgent problem of “The Social Impact of Music Violence,” a subject that I and the NPCBW have been engaged for more than five years in a relentless struggle to persuade the giant music industry to stop the production and worldwide distribution of violent, pornographic gangsta rap music. Those malicious lyrics grossly malign black women, degrade the unthinking young black artists who create it, pander pornography to our innocent young children, hold black people (especially young black males) universally up to ridicule and contempt, and corrupt its vast audience of listeners, white and black, throughout the world.
Action Must Be Taken
I am filled with hope and anticipation because this Congressional body is holding a hearing. I trust and pray that you will follow through with positive action to save our children from the cultural scourges that are besieging them. I applaud the action Congress took to protect children from the cultural filth on the Internet....
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The Media Must Exercise Self-Restraint
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Employing just 45 words, the founding fathers managed to establish the freedom to pray any way you want—or not pray; say anything you want—well, almost anything; publish any ideas you want—of course libel is out; get together in any place you want—sort of; and if that’s not enough, to complain to the government about anything else you want to complain about.
But no matter how many times the First Amendment is quoted, there is one key aspect of it that is consistently overlooked, an aspect that is of special significance to all of us who work in news and in entertainment: the First Amendment does not apply to us.
Regulating the Government
Of course, I am well aware that we are all direct beneficiaries of the First Amendment. But our role is passive. The fact is that the amendment is not directed at us. It all goes back to the first of those 45 words, “Congress shall make no law. . . .” In other words, it is setting rules of behavior for the government, not for us. This makes the amendment all the more remarkable. After all, most legal documents dictate the behavior of citizens, instructing us on everything from how to drive our cars, to how to...
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Free Speech Should Not Be Limited
Editor’s note: The following essay was originally published on Independence Day, July 4, 1997.
As we celebrate 221 years of independence, I want to take this opportunity to challenge myself and others who have argued for curtailing free speech when it provokes hatred and fear:We need to reconsider the value in limiting one of the greatest freedoms we have been granted.
Our Constitution is the oldest written document of its kind. Freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment, has often been threatened but has withstood assault by those who would seek to deny us that right. It has proved to be one of our most important freedoms, but we must maintain constant vigilance so that neither it nor any other right is abused.
Interpretation of the First Amendment and what types of speech it protects have been argued for generations. Perhaps no other section of that great document has excited as much debate.
Free Speech Is Essential to Democracy
Nowadays, we enjoy extraordinary freedom of expression and the right to say almost anything. This has not always been the case. It was not until recently that the protections granted by the First Amendment were broadly interpreted. In 1917, Judge Learned Hand first pointed out the necessity of free speech to a democratic society. At the time, cases involving the free speech component of the First Amendment dealt strictly with political statements.
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Children’s Access to Library Materials Should Not Be Restricted
Recall your childhood. Imagine trying to check out a book from your local library on the big bang or evolution. Suppose that you were told that a parent would have to check it out for you because it was from the adult section. (Say it was The Eyewitness Visual Dictionary of the Universe by Dorling Kindersley Limited or Fossils Tell of Long Ago by Aliki.) It might even be necessary to read from these books to complete a science homework assignment. Would your rights as a child and library patron have been violated? Not according to the Attorney General of the State of Alabama, Jimmy Evans. The forms that are used to permit such restrictions in the White Smith Library of Alabama are before me. They were sent to me after I attended the inaugural meeting for Family Friendly Libraries (FFL) in October 1995.
Ostensibly, this group is motivated by concerns over the sexual content of material available to minors. In particular, President Karen Jo Gounaud has described material that is favorable to homosexuals as philosophically radical and not family friendly. Since I know that my extended family includes practicing homosexuals, I would like to see my children understand something of this lifestyle to permit them to include and welcome these members into their family. So I don’t really see Gounaud’s point. Yet the FFL inaugural meeting included a speaker whose only topic was the infiltration of homosexuals...
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Racist Speech Should Not Be Restricted
In the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom of Speech,” an earnest Everyman stands at a public meeting to offer a question or comment. Judging from his mild expression and the polite attention of the people around him, he is not saying anything offensive or threatening.
Maybe he is asking for a new stop sign, complaining about an unfilled pothole or suggesting a raffle to raise money for the next Founders’ Day celebration. Whatever it is, chances are he’d be able to say it without a constitutional guarantee.
The painting nicely captures how most Americans view the First Amendment, which they love in theory but often abhor in practice. They are proud to protect freedom of speech, as long as the speech does not stray too far from Rockwell’s warm and fuzzy image.
An Inflammatory Pamphlet
The pamphlet that got nine Florida high school students arrested in late February 1998 was anything but warm and fuzzy. The 20-page, mostly handwritten booklet ridiculed people with “African diseases” and a weak grasp of English. It included drawings depicting a rape, a head with a bloody fork sticking out of it, and the school’s black principal, Timothy Dawson, impaled on a dart board. “What would happen if I shot Dawson in the head?” mused the author of an article entitled “A Student’s Complaint.”
Five girls and four boys distributed about 2,500 copies of the pamphlet at Killian High School in Kendall,...
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Music Lyrics Should Not Be Censored
In February 1997, the goth-rock ensemble Marilyn Manson and its eponymous lead singer embarked on a circuit of North American concert venues to promote the album Anti-Christ Superstar. As embroidered accounts of the band’s performances passed into fact, the disapproval of the pious quickly spiralled into panic. The band’s musical stagings were said to incorporate devil worship, live sex, defilement of Bibles, flag desecration, animal slaughter and Grand Guignol effects of indescribably blasphemous obscenity. Circulars produced in Tupelo, Mississippi by the Reverend Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) warned that Marilyn Manson ‘wants to put an end to Christianity through his music.’
Marilyn Manson’s pungent fusion of gender-bending and the occult provided a powerful organising and fundraising tool for ideologues whose power base is ignorance infused with fear. Protest demonstrations were assembled in cities throughout the USA by zealots across the sectarian spectrum. Cancellation of a Utah booking triggered a lawsuit. The fundamentalists of Oklahomans for Children and Families tried forcefully but vainly to stop the band from appearing in Oklahoma City. In Indiana, a movement arose to ‘bind’ the demons of Marilyn Manson through prayer.
When the group joined OzzFest, a concert package headlined by Ozzy Osbourne, the much-reviled former lead singer of Black Sabbath, protests...
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