The state of censorship, 2011

As much as Americans say they value freedom of speech, censorship is alive and well in the United States.

Students and faculty at Wingate University have learned a lot about this topic in the last week from someone who lives pretty close to the topic. Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition against Censorship spent five days on our campus as the visiting Woodrow Wilson Fellow. This program brings scholars to campus each year to give public lectures on a topic and to share their expertise with the university in a variety of forums.

Joan Bertin, NCAC executive director

As a journalism teacher and the adviser for a student publication, I have an obvious interest in this area. So some of what our guest shared with us was familiar territory to me, but I also gained some valuable insights into the state of freedom of expression in the U.S.

Bertin is an attorney by background and was on the legal staff of the American Civil Liberties Union before joining the NCAC. It’s an “umbrella” group which works with a variety of folks with an interest in First Amendment issues, like librarians, artists and educators.

“One of the first things that was surprising to me was how many incidents of censorship there were,” Bertin told a small group of faculty members at a dinner before her lecture appearance on Tuesday night.

Not surprisingly, many of them involve books in school libraries. Anyone who’s enjoyed a Harry Potter book or shared that experience with their children might – or might not – be surprised that J.K. Rowling’s books have been challenged in 36 states, with some school districts removing them or requiring parental permission before allowing them to be checked out.

Other frequently challenged books include some hardy perennials on the “censored” list, like J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” (one of my favorites from college days), and others that might be more surprising like Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides.”

“I really think people who challenge these books don’t think anyone should read them, not just children,” Bertin said.

In her public lecture, Bertin gave a short history of censorship – the main point being that it’s been with us for a long time. I won’t cover all the ground she covered, but she did mention some interesting current free speech controversies – from the Islamic outrage over cartoons in a Danish newspaper which mocked Mohammed in 2005 to the recent flap over a new bowdlerized (a great word, look it up!) version of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” which replaces the word “nigger” with “slave” — a change that’s been derided as both politically correct and historically inaccurate.

Bertin said many of these controversies have been played out against the backdrop of social change – spanning the political spectrum from the women’s, anti-war and civil rights movements of the Sixties and Seventies to the “culture wars” of recent decades.

Wherever they come from, ideas are always dangerous or threatening to someone.

In a later presentation to our communications student group, she said that her organization currently fields a lot of complaints about speech related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where just about anything that’s said is offensive to one side or the other.

“The exercise of free speech rights can be a noisy, messy business,” she said. “If everything that offended someone was removed, there would be little left.”

As I noted previously, all these issues are of personal concern to me as I go about my day-to-day duties helping students learn what the rights and the responsibilities of journalists are. And as they find out, even responsible journalism sometimes makes people angry. So from time to time I deal with the “why does that have to be in the paper?” question from the campus community.

My little First Amendment joke as a result of these experiences is that in their heart of hearts, everyone wants to be a censor, but nobody ever wants to be called one.

So I was pleased that Bertin addressed this issue.

“If we really believe in free speech – and we say we do – why does censorship happen with some frequency?” she asked.

The answer may lie in the attitudes expressed in opinion poll data that she cited, giving the percentages of people that agreed that speech critical of religion, and racist and other forms of “hate” speech should be regulated, or who thought that the press had too much freedom.

“Almost everyone would probably support censorship of something,” she said.

But, as I always pose the issue to my class in discussions of this issue in Media Law, the problem is in who gets to decide. Should government officials have the power to decide which ideas to favor over others, and what’s “orthodox” and what isn’t? Usually, not too many think that’s a good idea. Bertin agrees.

“We’re required to tolerate speech we may disagree with and we can’t look to the government to enforce our preferences,” she said.

(A questioner at the end of her presentation went down this road briefly as he expressed his objections to his tax dollars being used to fund National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. Bertin’s reply was that, as in speech, everyone probably has something they wish their tax dollars weren’t used for, but we basically don’t get to decide, other than broadly through our ballot-box choices of who represents us.)

I wrote about this issue back in the fall when a Florida minister was going to burn copies of the Koran in observance of the 9/11 anniversary. And I still believe it. The beauty of the First Amendment is that it protects speech and thought that makes us angry and uncomfortable, in addition to the thought and speech we support.

It makes for an unruly and sometimes fractious society. But as Bertin said, quoting Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan’s opinion in a 1971 free speech case Cohen v. California, “That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense, not a sign of weakness but of strength.”

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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