W ithout freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech; which is the right of every man as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another: and this is the only check it ought to suffer, and the only bounds it ought to know. --Benjamin Franklin, 1722 (at age 16)
Warning: This column contains words and ideas that may be offensive to some readers.
Yes, the notion of freedom of speech seems truly frightening to many Americans. Actually, it's not so much the notion of it--an American who claims to be against freedom is about as unlikely as finding an East German who wonders where that lovely wall disappeared to. We'll all swear up and down we're in favor of freedom of speech; it's not until someone actually starts exercising that freedom that the trouble usually starts.
\o7 It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others. \f7 --Thomas Jefferson, 1803
We've been hearing much about freedom of expression in art circles lately, largely because of a few photographs--one of a crucifix in a jar of urine, the others of homo-erotic images taken by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. The fact is the photos offended many who saw them--and thousands more who didn't. The question that still remains is whether art exhibits that included those photos should be censored, or whether they should be disqualified from receiving federal money via the National Endowment for the Arts.
\o7 I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. \f7 --James Madison, 1788
More frightening, to my mind at least, is what's going on in Florida now: people are actually going to jail because of the endlessly raw and brutal language used by the rap group 2 Live Crew on their "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" album. At least two record retailers have been arrested because they sold copies of the album to minors, while two members of the group were arrested for performing songs from that album after it was ruled obscene by a federal judge.
\o7 If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed. \f7 --Benjamin Franklin, 1731
Yes, it can be difficult to listen to immature individuals like those in 2 Live Crew who use language that debases women, in particular, and human sexuality in general. But 2 Live Crew is hardly the lone renegade among rap or rock groups. Why have they been singled out for prosecution, over and above the numerous X-rated video and book stores that dot the same neighborhoods where the group's record company is based? Is 2 Live Crew considered an easy target because theirs is the music of poor black youths of the ghetto? There are many equally provocative groups like Compton's N.W.A. or Los Angeles headbangers Guns N' Roses. I'd wager that so-called comedians such as Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison would register far higher on the Offend-O-Meter if a national poll were taken.
\o7 If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought--not free for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate. \f7 --Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Just in case these incidents on the Eastern Seaboard seem a safe and remote 3,000 miles away from sunny, freedom-loving Orange County, we need only look back three weeks to the example of a back-yard concert/record release party given for a whimsical local rock band called the Swamp Zombies. The affair, which prompted a complaint from neighbors because of noise, was unequivocally broken up by six squad cars from the Huntington Beach Police Department. Even though police arrived well after the music had ended (voluntarily), guests at the host's house were ordered to leave. One record company employee was arrested and charged with obstructing a peace officer because he had the effrontery to ask what law was being violated--this according to witnesses, including one reporter for this newspaper.
\o7 The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. \f7 --Thomas Jefferson, 1788
The real issue is not whether these performers were or were not offending someone; it's that none of them, no matter how many people they offend, deserve to be silenced.
\o7 Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? . . . Shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule of what we are to read, and what we must believe? \f7 --Thomas Jefferson, 1814