Freedom of speech takes many forms

Published 7:51 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Freedom of speech takes many forms

 The American Library Association provides a worthy service to the nation each year by cataloguing efforts to ban or limit the distribution of books. The association sponsors “Banned Book Week” each fall, but gathers information on censorship efforts throughout the year.

Recent terrorist attacks on French satirists have brought world attention to the issue of freedom of speech and the general consensus in this country is that nothing of that nature cold happen here.

 While efforts to limit access to books, particularly efforts by parents to have books removed from library shelves because they don’t want their children to read them, seem insignificant within the context of this debate and the world issue. They are not.

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 Efforts to remove books from public and school library shelves most often are undertaken because of sex, profanity and racism. And persons whose values are offended by the books they attack generally lead the efforts to have them removed.

 Most prevalent are efforts by parents who are afraid that their children will be exposed to material that is either not age appropriate or is inappropriate at any age.

 An example:

 “The Absolutely true Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was authored by Sherman Alexie. In 2007, the book won the National Book Foundation award for Young People’s Literature.

 When it was made required reading for a 10th grade class in Skyview High School in Montana, it was attacked for having references to a teenager’s sexual exploration.

 “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” has become a much-revered look at the horrors of Naxi Germany, seen through the eyes of a teenager whose diary was discovered after she had been shipped to a concentration where she died. But the book has been challenged in the U.S. by people who find Frank’s discussion of the physical changes she undergoes as a teenager. Challenged but, fortunately, not banned.

 But it’s not just books that are challenged in this country. Justice William Brennan wrote the majority opinion in Texas vs. Johnson in 1989 that overturned bans on flag burning in 48 of the nation’s 50 states. Ah, yes, flag burning is free speech and certainly no more objectionable than poking obnoxious fun at one’s religion. And yet, prior to the Supreme Court’s Johnson decision, poll after poll showed Americans favored laws preventing desecration of the flag.

 Justice Brennan wrote in his opinion:

 “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

 Personally, I find the approach used by the French satirists — I balk at calling them journalists — obnoxious. I believe the decision by most mainstream media outlets in this country not to run the cartoons that so infuriated Muslims was reasonable. Journalistic freedom includes the right not to publish as well as to publish, and responsible news outlets make decisions every day not to publish photographs or other material that their readers would find overly offensive.

 The murder of the French satirists and other magazine staff members deserves the condemnation it has received. Terrorism has to be vigorously opposed at every turn as it has and continues to be in this instance.

 But Let’s not be too pious about our defense of free speech in this nation. If the public were given a vote on objectionable speech whenever it arose here, then speech — depending on whom was doing the speaking and what they had to say — would probably not fare too well.

And that’s what Justice Brennan understood.