Sunday, May 31

Censorship allows lawmakers to mute the voice of self-expression

It is a trend almost tragic that Americans believe themselves to be free. And compared with the likes of Iran, or China, or Burma, it may be true.

But take a quick look around, and you’ll see that the United States is no haven for freethinkers. From the Federal Communications Commission and their fines up the wazoo, to the federal imposition of obscenity laws, America has a horrid history of censoring that which might offend ““ perhaps even some strange repulsion to sexuality Freud would do well to examine.

Shoot-outs are custom, but a nip-slip is sin. A Christian Scientist can dissuade cancer patients from using medicine, but I can’t say the word “hole” after “ass” on the air? You tell me which is more dangerous.

But that is beside the point. Is self-expression only to be allowed when stripped, safe and sterile?

When James Joyce’s monolith of a novel “Ulysses” arrived on U.S. shores, it was banned as obscene. It was not until Judge John M. Woolsey defended its literary significance that American readers could taste the fruit of forbidden knowledge and read what would go on to become the Modern Library’s No. 1 novel of the 20th century. The line between genius and obscenity is quite thin.

Publishers and readers rejoiced from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but what was a victory for lovers of literature and linguistic aesthetes was but another obstacle to free speech, in disguise. Oh sure, the stigma of obscenity was removed from the novel, but the fact remains that it still had to pass the test (so to speak) of obscenity.

What is deemed obscene (and thus, unfit to be distributed) in America is itself problematic. Currently the U.S. Supreme Court uses the Miller Test, which labels obscene that which is “patently offensive,” prone to “prurient” interests and lacking artistic, political or scientific value.

Such criteria are just vague enough to lack any substantial meaning, while operating under the assumption that expression has merit only insofar as a society accepts it.

The First Amendment, then, does not protect any peaceable speech. So long as government insists on its ability to regulate what is appropriate, speech is only free within the confines of what is more or less orthodox to public standards.

As a resident of the San Fernando Valley, the porn capital of the world, this hits rather close to home.

That the government has any restriction on personal taste is quite dauntingly demoralizing.

Granted, there are certain things ““ child porn, bestiality, snuff ““ the regulation of which corresponds to the prevention of crime. Actual, physical damages are arguably intrinsic; federal and state bans and penalties deter and preclude real violations of real well-beings.

Consider New York v. Ferber, the 1982 Supreme Court case that outlawed the sale of child pornography on grounds that it provides an “economic motive” to abuse children. A compelling argument, no doubt, or at least fairly agreeable. The court did not resort to anti-obscenity sentiments to prohibit child porn, but rather deemed it unlawful by virtue of harm done to minors in its production.

This is as far as speech restriction should go.

When governments seek to regulate what their citizens can or can’t do, make or see, they effectually deprive the citizenry of a freedom essential to true liberty: the freedom to think. What good is freedom if laws exist restraining what you can or can’t read, can or can’t see, can or can’t enjoy ““ laws based on public perception, no less?

That such a thing as obscenity even exists as a legally defined, legally restricted entity in the United States is more than a sign of bad faith. It is a sign of hypocrisy. For a classically liberal democracy (as America purports to be) to constrain the whim and fancy of its citizens is patently absurd. Independence means independence, not dependence on the approval of others.

The United States was founded on liberalism, an ideology which champions individual autonomy over state paternalism. It is not the role of government, whether federal or state, to impose its petty restrictions on what it deems to be appropriate use of media.

And in this great nation of ours, the blood of free speech is on both parties’ hands. Republican lawmakers no doubt lent a vital hand in passing the laws that helped frame “obscenity.” Numerous Democrats have extolled the virtues of the Fairness Doctrine, a now-defunct FCC policy requiring broadcasters to present equal coverage of both sides of controversial topics. And members of both parties supported the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, tightening the FCC’s grip around the strangled throat of free expression.

Because in America, it is not enough that innovation comes from aberration. It is not enough that independence necessitates free expression. In the United States of America, freedom’s but a pretense of drones that can’t stray far from the hive.

Government-sanctioned control of the media is a thing of the past. Indeed ““ straight out of 1984.

If freedom is a four-letter word, e-mail Manalastas at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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