Cue the Censors….

Remember the chant from our childhood– “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

Of course, that has never been true; words can and do deeply wound. But the message of the chant is nonetheless important: just as we realize that politics is “warfare by another name,” and infinitely preferable, since politics at least lets us live to fight another day, discussion and debate and even name-calling are preferable to physical attacks.

Furthermore, the notion that robust speech and debate are an essential element of the search for truth is enshrined in the Free Speech clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment. Freedom not just for ideas with which we agree, but freedom even–perhaps especially– for the idea we hate, as Justice Holmes memorably put it.

And yet, if there is one constant through American history, it is the urge to suppress ideas that offend some person or faction. Pick up any newspaper or visit any news site, and there will be reports on efforts to censor. Two recent examples:

The Kansas State Senate on Wednesday passed S.B. 56, with twenty-six Republican senators supporting the measure, and six Republicans and eight Democrats opposing. The bill is ostensibly designed to protect students by making it illegal to display or present material that is “harmful to minors,” such as pornography.

But the broad categorizations and vague language have caused concern among teachers and free speech advocates about what will and won’t be policed.

Of course, what I think is “harmful to minors” may be rather different from what you think is harmful.

Censorship efforts are often accompanied by pious expressions of concern for children; other times, however, it is very clear that opponents of particular ideas simply want to suppress those ideas.

A Pennsylvania transit system permitted churches to advertise on the sides of its buses but refused to allow a group that doesn’t believe in God to place an ad containing the word “atheists,” fearing it would offend riders, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The County of Lackawanna Transit System repeatedly rejected the ads sought by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, telling the group it doesn’t permit advertising space to be used as a forum for public debate. The transit system also told the group its ad might alienate riders and hurt revenue, according to the lawsuit, filed in Scranton.

The transit system allowed several churches — as well as a political candidate and a blog that linked to anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial and white supremacist websites — to advertise before the Freethought Society first tried placing its ad in 2012, the suit said.

I don’t suppose it occurs to the censors that when you demonstrate fear of an opposing idea, you are simply highlighting the weakness of your own position….


  1. The urge to censor stuff I don’t like (*cough* Fox News *cough*) is always strong. Free speech can do damage. For example, thanks to certain moneyed interests, many in the U.S. think there is still substantial disagreement on climate change. Too many in the U.S. reject science and believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. We can’t thrive if we are ignorant. If I got to be the censor, we’d have a more intelligent and informed population.

    All of that would be wonderful, but it’s still a lousy substitute for free speech. No free society can survive if censors rule the roost.

  2. Bill – thanks for noting the attempts to deny climate change. Just yesterday there was news that the Koch brothers will try to change the Pope’s mind about climate change. It seems the Pope is too concerned about being good stewards of
    the environment. I’d love to a fly on the wall in that meeting.

  3. I live in a city where there is no freedom of speech. There is freedom of the press for the Florida Times-Union which is controlled by outside interests and the local Tea Party oligarchy. And no one else. All other media including personal blogs use self-censorship.

    By the way, Jacksonville is the only city over 400,000 that doesn’t have a Human Rights Ordinance for the LGBT community.

    The results are in: Jacksonville is bankrupt and has no way out other than being America’s first prototype theocratic city. That’s not worth very much when you have a 2.7 billion shortfall in the police, fireman, and general city employee pension plan. No city funds went into the plan for 11 years.

    Everything went toward making the city a “Tea Party Theme Park.” The Tea Party oligarchy needed an NFL team to cover its activities. The city couldn’t afford both funding the pension plan and financing the cost of landing an NFL team, a new stadium and all. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the head oligarch made his millions building theme parks for Disney.

    Physical threats, slander and libel from the Florida Times-Union prevented anyone from effectively warning or putting a stop to the disaster.

    Ironically, last night before going to bed, I was reading an essay by Edward Said entitled “Apocalypse Now.” In discussing our war against Iraq he explained: “For reasons that need restating here, the media is particularly happy to go along with the government in bringing home to domestic customers the wonderful excitement of American self-righteousness, the proud flag-waving, the “feel-good” sense that we are facing down a monstrous dictator. Far from analysis and calm reflection, the media exists mainly to derive its mission from the government, not to produce a corrective or any dissent. The media, in short, is an extension of the war against Iraq.” This essay was written back during the time of the Clinton administration.

    Unfortunately, we now have a war against America by Americans. The “dictator” in this scenario has to be President Obama.

  4. In general I’d agree, but while I’d have a very hard time defining where the line is, there still should be one. Atheist, feminist, LGBT, right-wing christian, NRA, whatever – I’ve seen very few examples where any of these were really offensive (at least to me, whose mind is so open that my brains have fallen out, evidently).

    But Pamela Geller’s shenanigans in NYC go too far. Luckily they’ve banned political ads (for now – no doubt the AFDI will file another suit) so we won’t be subjected to what to me qualifies as incitement to riot – but just imagine the uproar if ads with the same tone & rhetoric appeared anywhere in the country targeted at jews, hispanics, or christians.

    It just seems to me that there are a (very) few acts of free speech that constitute yelling fire in a crowded movie theatre. Who draws the line? I have no idea, but it would probably take a law clerk with a PhD in Sociology to write a workable legal test.

  5. In just three days we will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day, that came after nearly six long and bloody years of war with Nazi Germany by the Allied Powers. Given what Marv described above in regard to his city, Jacksonville, FL, it seems as though that some in this country, likely and also hopefully unwittingly, ascribe to some of the same tactics used by those that were defeated four days and seventy years ago from today when they came to power in 1932. While I am not normally prone to make such comparisons and actually try to avoid making them the parallels are striking. Our ancestors watched then as the Brown Shirts, along with their absolutist thinking blended with misguided hyper-patriotism, bullied their way into power, clamping down on dissent, and did nothing as the most cultured and literate nation-state in Europe was turned inside out. Europe, which had long struggled with outbursts of such thinking fell into thirteen years of horror as a result with the Germans and their country being basically destroyed in the process. Granted that this example is on the extreme end of things it nevertheless should be considered even if only in passing.

    Absolutist thinking in any form is wrong and really, in a very basic sense, un-American yet those who espouse such thinking are so cock-sure that they are right they cannot entertain any thinking but their own. My guess is none of these people could remotely come close to contemplating the last sentence in Sheila’s post let alone understand it yet what they preach is weak and out of place. Such thinking is normally on the margins in this country but now it’s right out there in the open for all to see. I just hope that more people do take notice and stand up to such thinking since in a vibrant democracy as this country is supposed to be it has no place.

    I guess that I’m your typical Liberal Arts student since when I think I have everything figured out I get nervous since there are no final answers to anything. When one thinks that there are they cut off any chance of moving forward, as individuals, cities, or as nation-states, and relegate themselves to the status of also-rans even if they can’t bring themselves to see that.

  6. Living within a few miles of Germany, they have recovered nicely and their culture is not the victim anymore. They are a proud lot and it is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever seen. They haven’t let their history define them; they’ve overcome it.

  7. Those who are wary of censorship are right to be so. As a librarian working in a library that had “children’s settings” on their computers, it was impossible to answer a bird biology question when the computer I was using had been changed to the “safe” setting.

  8. Marv Kramer, your description of what has happened/is happening to Jacksonville is horrifying, but clearly is the same thing happening in other places, Wisconsin in particular, although many state and local governments are underfunding pensions, putting retiring state and local employees at risk of losing their pensions altogether.

    But I have to say that I am baffled by the conclusions that you draw that government and President Obama, in particular, are to blame. Surely it’s apparent that Big Money, Big Business, etc., is the driving force behind this? And that religion and “patriotism” are merely the vehicles?

  9. I’ve never met Sheila. I was linked to this blog about two weeks ago by a friend.

    All I can say is, that if Jacksonville had had a blog like this, the socio/political/ economic disaster would never have happened. Deception cannot take place unless everyone is in the loop.

  10. Genny,

    I didn’t mean to infer that President Obama was a “monster.” I meant just the opposite. However, I can see how my statement could be misconstrued.

    As a matter of fact, in the June 30, 2008 issue of The Nation magazine, I warned about the massive attacks on Obama that would come his way.

    A few weeks later, Frank Rich, a writer with the New York Times, on the Editorial Page, accused me of being “anti-White.” I thought I was only being a good American. Strange world we’re living in.

  11. I think that there are two ingredients in “the massive attacks on Obama”. One is racism. The other is the massive failure of the Cheney administration. I have no idea of the relative proportions.

    Of course the racism preceded the Obama administration but was rekindled by it.

    The Cheney failures preceded it too but made the Republican stakes so high for future elections that the GOP had to, just had to, deny Obama even the idea of success among the electorate. That they have tried their best despite the damage to America to do.

  12. You’re absolutely right Pete.

    As a matter of fact, the same type of an attack was launched against Leon Blum the Jewish Prime Minister of France in 1936. As it was said, “They never gave him an inch.”

    This was the beginning of the end for France’s Third Republic. The damage from the divisiveness was irreversible.

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  14. The irony is that as disgusting as Pamela Geller’s projectile vomiting is, it’s her right and if we care about free speech we have to defend it.

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