JE SUIS CHARLIE.
The rampant massacre of 12 persons (11 wounded) at the offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo by Islamic fundamentalists ostensibly motivated by the newspaper’s irreverence in publishing scurrilous cartoons about the Founding Islamic Prophet Mohammed, cries out for sanity in differences of opinion. Everywhere differences of opinion encourage virulence by one side or both in their confrontations. The gunmen purportedly proclaimed that the massacre avenged the Prophet’s name and reputation despoiled by the French newspaper. As justification for printing the cartoons, the media retorted that the massacre was an attack on “freedom of the press”. Globally, the massacre became a “freedom of speech” issue, prompting defiant wide-scale printing of the cartoons.
Important to note is that “freedom of speech” is not absolute. It’s certainly not absolute in totalitarian societies nor in many democracies. A popular aphorism posits that “your right to attack me ends where my nose begins,” raising the question: Are there justifiable limits to “freedom of speech”?
In the gamut of these concerns, U. S. Supreme Court rulings have held that the limits of free expression and access can be bounded by government interest—security clearances or relocation of Japanese Americans. For example, the crux of censorship—as a “freedom of speech” issue is the extent of harm and extent of government interest in the matter. These are not easy limits to define.
Like defamation and slander, libel is not protected by the U.S. Constitution. Neither is “pornography,” although in the case of “pornography” the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that for a work to be ruled “pornographic” the following criteria prevails: the work must (1) offend community standards, (2) appeal to prurient interests, and (3) be without redeeming social value. More often than not, issues of pornography fail the sniff-test on number 3.
In an early “freedom of speech” issue in 1919 the United States Supreme Court decision on Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes held that the defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, pointing out that the defendant’s speech was tantamount to “shouting fire in a crowded theater” creating unnecessary panic.
That has since been followed up by adding that yelling “bomb” in a plane is not protected
speech; nor are “fighting words,” that is,
“words which are likely to make the person to whom they are addressed commit an act of violence. Fighting words receive no First Amendment protection either, because, like other unprotected categories (i.e. defamation, obscenity, etc.), they are not normally part of any dialogue or exposition of ideas. But, the Supreme Court today keeps this exclusion within narrow limits.” The fighting words doctrine originated in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).
Ethan Silver, Ari Stein, Tony Surman, & Eric Thompson, http://www.gvpt.umd.edu/gvpt339/fightingwords.html).
According to George Orwell, “If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This is inordinately broad latitude in the supremacy of “freedom of speech.” Where are the parameters of civility? Of respect for the fundamentals of a person’s religious beliefs? Do these parameters not call for reason about rushing to judgment in characterizing differences of opinion as efforts of censorship. This is not to mitigate, excuse, or justify the massacre at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by Islamic fundamentalists in the name of the Prophet.
As a journalist I see the massacre at Charlie Hebdo as an act of violent censorship. For all of us and especially the information professions, the issue of censorship is significant. For publishers, one of the key documents in the freedom to print [imprimatur] is John Milton’s Areopagitica, a speech delivered to the English parliament in 1641 beseeching restitution of the freedom to print books without government permission or intervention. For American newspapers, the first amendment to the Constitution is crucial to their interests—Congress shall make no laws restricting freedom of the press.
By and large, the evolution of American law has safeguarded publication of books and newspapers and exhibition of films. Erosion of that law comes from quarters that seek to suppress, extra-legally, distribution of publications and films [and now recordings] deemed by them as offensive. Many religions have published [and continue to publish] lists or indexes of books their adherents may not read. Special interest groups seek to intimidate publishers with boycotts; school districts, with political reprisals; individuals with anathema, even fatwas as mandatory murder.
Re censorship, the burning of books (biblioclasm) has a long historical tradition: “the destruction of and burning the books in the Library of Alexandria; burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty; the destruction of Mayan codices by Spanish conquistadors and priests like Bishop Diego de Landa who in 1562 burned 5,000 idols and thousands of their written works; and in more recent times, Nazi book burnings and the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library” (Wikipedia: http://en.wiki-pedia.org/ wiki/ Book_ burning).
In 1497, Dante’s Divine Comedy was burned on religious grounds. In 1522 John Calvin burned as many copies of the Servetus Bible as he could find, a text he did not approve of. Later, Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake for being a Unitarian.
“Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1873, inscribed book burning on its seal, as a worthy goal to be achieved Comstock’s total accomplishment in a long and influential career is estimated to have been the destruction of some 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing such ‘objectionable’ books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures. All of this material was defined as ‘lewd’ by Comstock’s very broad definition of the term—which he and his associates successfully lobbied the United States Congress to incorporate in the Comstock Law” (http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/ Book_burning).
In 1933, urged by Joseph Goebbel, Minister of Propaganda, German students from highly regarded universities burned books with “un-German ideas” in Berlin and other German cities in a ritual cleansing called Säuberung (The History Place: World War II in Europe: http://www.historyplacew.com/ world war2/timeline/bookburn.htm). Books burned included books by Freud, Einstein, Thomas Mann, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Heinrich Heine, Erich Koestler, Karl Marx, Kurt Tucholsky, and others. ”The speech and book burning were accompanied by the singing of Nazi songs and anthems” (Ibid.).
In 1980, Hezbollists of the cultural revolution in Iran burned libraries and millions of books in the name of Islam (“Book Burning” by Jahanshah Rashidian: http://www.iran-press-srvice. com/ips/articles-2008/ may2008/ book). Omar Khayam did not escape the Iranian cleansing. On the American Library Association list of the 100 most challenged or banned books for the period from 1990 to 1999, Bless Me, Ultima was number 75. Anaya is one of the most respected Chicano novelists, recipient of the National Medal of Arts for 2001 presented to him by George W. Bush in 2002. For 2000-2009, Bless Me, Ultima is number 32 on the ALA Banned Books List. We don’t know where censorship was first practices historically but, no doubt, it came into being when the “ideas” of one person clashed with those of another or when one person objected to being characterized a particular way by another.
With the advent of film, “obscenity” and “pornography” have become larger considerations in censorship—the limits of “offensive” material. Ovid’s love poems were censored in Rome on grounds that they incited lust in their readers. Films are rated on their “offensiveness.” As social standards change so does the precept of censorship. One era’s obscenity becomes another’s titillation until finally such tempests come to be regarded as quaint. This is not to diminish genuine social concern for moral and just behavior. At odds with this concern stands the equally pressing concern for the free thought and expression of the individual—is there reconciliation?
Censorship “is socially more harmful than the material it seeks to ban” (McClellan, 9). Moreover, “all censorship should be opposed because there is never any guarantee that once it is made a tool of society it won’t be used to suppress all unpopular ideas” (Ibid., 30). These are expressions from the 60s in opposition to censorship. Current expressions about censorship posit that “censorship ultimately limits language—language that could be used to further intelligent discourse. By narrowing the scope of language, censorship inevitably deprives individuals of the opportunity to generate new visions and new ideas” (Carter in Brown, 212).
Agee, Hugh. “Literature, Intellectual Freedom, and the Ecology of the Imagination,” in Preserving
Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, Edited by Jean E. Brown, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
Brown, Jean E. Editor. Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
Carter, Lief H. “Mind-Control Applications of the Constitutional Law of Censorship in the Educational Environment” in Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, Edited by Jean E. Brown, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
Davis, James E. “Afterword” in Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, Edited by Jean E. Brown, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
Karolides, Nicholas J., Margaret Bald & Dwn B. Sova, 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. New York: Checkmark Books/Facts on File, 1999.
Kennedy, Dan. “Silencing Free Speech,” Boston Phoenix. July 5, 2008.
Kennedy, Dan. “Silencing Free Speech,” The 11th Annual Muzzle Awards, Boston Phoenix, July 5, 2008.
McClellan, Grant S. Editor. Censorship in the United States. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1967.