Monday, May 27, 1996

Week of 05/27/1996

Tyranny by any other name...
What free speech really means.
- by David Matthews 2

In the recent months, I have noticed a dangerous trend not only in politics, but in society, to limit the amount of free speech and expression entitled to us by the Constitution. From housewives to radio talk show hosts, and from local legislators to Presidential candidates, the wave of anti-freedom sentiment has attracted a wide range of citizens who feel that certain groups have gone just too far.

But perhaps it's time these people realize the true purpose of what the First Amendment means for the country.

Two centuries ago our founding fathers decided to bolster the already revolutionary Constitution of the United States of America with a series of rights that would reflect the new sense of liberty from the old British regime. The one thing the framers of our country did not want was to liberate themselves from the British Empire only to create their own tyrannical government. Thus when they crafted the First Amendment, they established the very things the British monarchy had restricted. These include the freedom to speak out and express oneself without retaliation or restriction; the freedom to practice religion in the manner one chooses instead of what religion the government allows; and the freedom to peacefully assemble without permission from the government. These are important rights, because no other country ever gave the people so much power to defy their own government.

But there have been those in government who have been intolerant to such freedoms, and have often called for rigid conformity to what they consider to be the norm. The most recent period when such rigid conformity reigned in government was in the 1950's, amidst the start of the Cold War when people were terrified of the expansion of communism. Some people could remember Senator Joe McCarthy's crusade against those he thought of as communist spies, but there were also other symbols of government repression during the time.

In 1954, Congress held hearings to determine if a certain type of publication was corrupting children into delinquency and violence. Research was conducted to determine if there was a link between juvenile crimes and comic books- most notably horror series such as "Tales from the Crypt" that were targeted more towards adult readers. Although there was no concrete proof presented, the comic book publishers were intimidated by Congress into passing their own codes of conduct in future publications- known since then as the Comics Code. The alternative was for Congress to enact laws that would have infringed on the First Amendment rights of all writers and members of the print media.

Perhaps people can remember the days of Elvis and the Beatles, but how many people can remember when the call was to stop the growing music trend with the rallying cry "Rock and Roll has got to go?" Or the fact that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kept constant surveillance on anyone who questioned the status quo in society- including civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luthor King?

The same arguments being used to promote restrictions on our liberties today are no different from those used forty years ago. Senate majority leader and presidential hopeful Bob Dole no doubt had such nostalgic feelings in mind when he essentially told Time Warner that rock and roll, as well as rap music, certain movies, and anything else that offends him, have got to go. And it's a good guess that Senator James Exon of Nebraska wishes Dr. Fredric Wertham were still alive so he too could rally against adult content on the Internet just as Wertham crusaded against all comic books in the 1950's.

Perhaps the worst of all infringements is the proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning. On the surface, it seems like a good idea. After all, we abhor people who desecrate the symbols of this country, be they in Iran, Iraq, or even on the front steps of our own capitol building. But once you put aside the patriotism and rationally think about what banning such behavior really means, you see it in a totally different light.

The constitutional protections of free speech and the subsequent freedom of expression were founded on the notion that people are allowed to speak in defiance against the government; much as our forefathers did two centuries ago. That included burning or destroying the symbols of that government. But while the flag is a symbol of the government, it also represents the rights and freedoms that made up this country. Ideas that cannot be burned, but can be destroyed when a government believes that they are not as important as the piece of cloth it stands for.

Of course, those who would push for anti-freedom legislation would say that it's for the overall good of the people. That living in a republic means certain sacrifices to individual liberties must be made to maintain order. Such was the argument in Germany when a house painter named Hitler was democratically elected into power and began his persecution of those groups he objected to. Can Dole and Exon say they are any better?

William Shakespeare once said "A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet." I would say that tyranny by any other name is still just as evil and must be opposed. The founding fathers of our country would have wanted no less.

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