Another First Amendment Issue?

The United States is well known for the freedoms projected by its Constitution. The First Amendment, in particular, protects citizens’ rights to free speech. Yet, in spite of this amendment, the U.S. has had its share of attempts to censor material. This censorship represents a growing intolerance that many Americans have toward their own society. More and more people have expressed outrage over, what is printed in books, depicted in paintings and photographs, written in songs, or demonstrated at political gatherings. Because of this outrage, many books have been censored from school libraries, art has been denied public funding, musicians have had concerts canceled, and political demonstrations have been limited. Probably the most extreme censorship proposal in the U.S. has been to amend the Constitution to prohibit the burning of the U.S. flag, an act sometimes practiced by those who want to protest against America policies.

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A growing number of parents, lawyers, and religious leaders have felt the need to limit free expressions. These advocates of censorship range from the politically conservative to the politically liberal. In the South, for example, many conservative communities, while fighting to include time in school for prayer, are fighting to ban particular children’s books. In extreme cases, righteous religious leaders in those communities have given sermons claiming that American towns and cities will soon turn into Sodom and Gomorrah, literary standards are not imposed in the schools. In addition, some African-American parents have rejected Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because of the book’s use of racist language. Liberal feminists, too, have called for bans on published material containing pornography.

Censorship proposals are not only common in the world of books, but also in the worlds of art and music. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, drew public attention when people discovered that his work, which had been funded by the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), included sexually explicit photographs of male couples. Many people say his photographs as examples of people living in squalor. Karen Finley, a performance artist, also drew attention when the NEA denied her public funding because many had claimed her work was obscene. In the music world, legal actions were brought against a rap group called 2 Live Crew because lyricism in their new hit album was thought to be too sexual and morally offensive. The record was banned by federal judge in Florida. Yet, from this case we can conclude that censorship in America is not consistent. While the group was acquitted for the obscenity charges, the record seller was convicted for selling the album in the same state. In fact, once the record was censored, it started to thrive. With the media's attention on all of these cases, there now seems to be a new connection between being censored and making a buck. Censorship, of course, is not unique to the United States. Throughout the world, the freedom of expression has often been limited. For years, during the Cultural Revolution, books were banned in China; people had little choice in what to read. Just recently, the China Film Censorship Board banned a new film about an all-powerful master of four mistresses in the 1920s. Israel tried to suppress a book which embarrassed its top-secret intelligence agency, the Mossad. The book presents the Mossad as a corrupt agency, full of “greed, lust and total lack of respect for human life." Perhaps the most famous case involving censored material was that of Salman Rushdie, who, while living in England, published his famous Satanic Verses, a book that offended the religious sensibilities of many people.

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Many people, however, reject any attempt to control the freedom of expression. In the United States, advocates of the First Amendment argue that censorship erodes our free exchange of ideas. Artists who have seen their colleagues get burned by museums canceling their exhibits or cutting their funding argue that creativity suffers with censorship practices. Others point to the fact that famous works of profundity have sometimes been censored when first released, but that our concept of what is morally acceptable changes over time. Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was declared obscene and banned in 1882. James Joyce Ulysses was impossible to obtain in its first decade. Henry Miller books Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn were banned when they were first published, only to be loved and studied by many in later years.

The question today seems to be whether the current waves of censorship represent a threatening phenomenon and must be stopped, or whether American society has reached the point described in the words of a judge in a recent censorship case, “it a question between two ancient enemies—‘anything goes' versus 'enough already.’ ”