by the Rubber Ducky

As the Constitution of the United States plainly declares, “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.” The premise is simple: The people of the United States are granted the right to say what they deem necessary, proper, or just. The Constitution, the highest law of the land, protects this right. There are no deep, puzzling ramifications here, yet there are agencies who insidiously try to infringe on the First Amendment rights that all American citizens should enjoy. Through the use of censorship, many agencies silence opinions expressed against them, distort facts, and mislead the populace. This is an inexcusable crime against the Constitution, and censorship is in-arguably a violation of First Amendment rights.

The Founding Fathers of America wisely foresaw the effects of government censorship, its power to silence what ought to be said and its tendency to mislead the people. To see what they wished to avoid, we need only to look at some instances in history where censorship was brutally misused. One can look back to the government-sanction Spanish Inquisition, which was driven by xenophobic censorship of other cultures in bygone Spain. In order to preserve the status quo as well as silence those who would oppose her, the priests of the Catholic Church in Spain tortured and executed those who expressed views disagreeing with their own. More recently, one could reflect upon the effect of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich on the German people in the early twentieth century. Censorship was very much a part of this society; suspicious or dissident books were burned publicly in the streets. The Nazi government used censorship with a deft and skilled hand, utilizing its power to silence the opinions of all who opposed it. These governments likely did not intend for their programs to devolve into mass executions or public book-burnings. However, one argument against censorship is that it’s a slippery slope. In other words, once censorship begins, its power grows and snowballs until it becomes difficult to stop. The writers of the Constitution decided to nip this problem in the bud, and I believe that their intent was not to allow the government to censor any material of any kind.

But what of censorship that is not backed by the government? If an independent agency attempts to silence another’s speech, the right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment is still violated. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations, most prominent among them the American Civil Liberties Union, that act to protect the free speech of individuals across the country.

In spite of all this, some say that censorship is necessary, usually to protect the children. Ridiculous. I sincerely doubt that it has become the job of the government (or some censorship department thereof) to protect the children; that is the duty and responsibility of the parent alone. I also wonder precisely why some see the need to protect children from the truth. Suppose little Johnny has had the tremendous misfortune of witnessing his parents exchanging physical intimacies. Which is the better mother, she who invents a lie, to conceal her shame, or she who takes the opportunity to educate the young child about sexual relations and responsibility? The same holds true for sex in the media. Another example involves death, either of human or animal. Death is a very deep concept that I believe should be exposed and explained to children at an early age. There is no reason to let a child believe that a deceased relative has “passed on” or, worse, is “in a better place.” Instead, as with sex, such opportunities should be used as golden windows to educate a child. The argument that children should be protected is ludicrous; “protecting” them is simply a euphemism for shirking one’s responsibility to teach their child about ideas that are not easy to teach properly.

And still they try! A very recent example of government censorship occurred in June 1996, when the Supreme Court ruled out a censorship law in the case of Alliance for Community Media vs. Federal Communications Commission. The FCC attempted to use cable operators as a cover to censor speech protected by the first amendment. Had this Commission continued with its project, it would have enabled the operator to prohibit programming on public, educational, or governmental access cable channels based on content. Educational programs affected by censorship would have included breast cancer self-examination (showing of a bare breast), AIDS/HIV prevention (some sexual content), abortion (violence) and childbirth. Some art involving nudity would also have been blocked, along with dramatic movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “Gone with the Wind”. Also, television mini-series about the Civil War (for example) would have been either screened and censored or simply scrapped outright, only because of the violent content involved. To portray the tragedy of the Civil War as anything other than the violent and bitter ordeal that it was is a gross distortion of fact as well as an insult to the memories of those who fought therein.

Anthony Romero, in his report to the ACLU about censorship after the September 11 attacks, had this to say on the changing state of the nation:

“In separate but related attempts to squelch dissent, the government has attacked the patriotism of its critics, police have barricaded and jailed protesters, and the New York Stock Exchange has revoked the press credentials of the most widely watched television network in the Arab world. A chilling message has gone out across America: Dissent if you must, but proceed at your own risk.
Government-sanctioned intolerance has even trickled into our private lives. People brandishing anti-war signs or slogans have been turned away from commuter trains in Seattle and suburban shopping malls in upstate New York. Country music stations stopped playing Dixie Chicks songs, and the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled an event featuring “Bull Durham” stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, after they spoke out against the war on Iraq.”

In his report, Freedom Under Fire, Romero pointed out several cases of First Amendment violations. One such case that caught my eye was that of Bretton Barber, of Dearborn, Michigan. The public school there, a government agency, had attempted to censor Barber’s anti-war shirt. Barber was sent home from school after refusing to turn his shirt, which had a picture of then-President George W. Bush upon it, captioned “International Terrorist.” The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in at Barber’s behest, and the matter was taken to court. The school argued that Barber’s shirt may have stirred up controversy. However, countered the ACLU, the US Supreme Court had ruled in the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case of 1969 that such messages were allowed unless it could be reasonably shown that the message was openly distracting or adversely affecting the discipline of students. As you can see, despite the guarantees of the First Amendment, the United States government (and its subsidiaries) sometimes tries to shush its own people, and the agencies intended to protect the people from themselves must sometimes have to protect the people from their own government.

If America plans to promote democracy and the American way of life abroad, we as Americans need to do all we can to keep the atmosphere in America free as well. We cannot allow ourselves to be censored, either by the government or by each other, if we are to be an example of democracy in the years to come. In order to preserve both the American way of life as well as to be a country to look to for guidance, we cannot allow censorship of any kind to become pervasive in American life. After all, freedom to say what we feel is a constitutional right. To take it away, even a little, is to undermine what our country stands for.

© 2009 by The Rubber Duck
Used with permission

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