Freedom of speech vs. censorship: Who’s the Winner?

By Tom Jennings

(Following is the expurgated version of a speech that Tom Jennings, coordinator of the Humanists at Barefoot Bay, gave at the March 2010 meeting.)

Hi! My name is Tom Jennings, and I’m going to be talking to you about Freedom of Speech and Censorship. "Specifically, Freedom of speech vs. censorship: who's the winner?" I’m sure that most of you all know the answer to that. So, I reckon I’m preaching to the choir. Still, let me hit you with another question.

"What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Hulk Hogan and Freedom of Speech have in common?" Hands please. That is correct. They’re all figments of the imagination.

And what does that have to do with the price of electronics or motor scooters in China? Well, over the years I’ve had a big bag full of confrontations with censorship or the suppression of freedom of speech in sizes small and large, each emotionally unsettling, each a defining learning experience.

Just the tip of the iceberg incidences include my run-ins with newspaper editors and copyreaders, movie directors and editors and at least one Mother Superior (and I do mean, superior).

Before we go any further, let’s get a good handle on our definitions. Freedom of speech, according to Wikipedia, is the "freedom to speak without censorship and/or limitation. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes used to indicate not only freedom of verbal speech but "any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used."

“The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” continues Wikipedia.

Of course, it’s also in the Constitution of the United States. The founders reckoned it was so important that they made it part of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We are guaranteed it as American citizens. But like so many other guarantees, it’s gutless; you have to read the small print to really see what’s guaranteed.

In practice, says Wikipedia, "the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, such as on 'hate speech.'"


Noam Chomsky doesn’t seem to totally agree with that huge exception. Chomsky states that: "If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise."

And the opposite of freedom of speech? Censorship, to be sure.

Censorship, Wikipedia tells us, is "the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material, which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a censor."

So says Wikipedia: "The rationale for censorship is different for various types of information censored."

Examples abound. For instance: "Moral censorship is the removal of materials that are obscene or otherwise morally questionable. Pornography, for example, is often censored under this rationale, especially child pornography, which is censored in most jurisdictions in the world.

Military censorship is the process of keeping military intelligence and tactics confidential and away from the enemy. This is used to counter espionage, which is the process of gleaning military information. Very often, militaries will also attempt to suppress politically inconvenient information even if that information has no actual intelligence value.

"Political censorship occurs when governments hold back information from their citizens. This is often done to exert control over the populace and prevent free expression that might foment rebellion," explains Wikipedia.

My all-time favorite movie, “The Manchurian Candidate,” felt the cutting edge of the censor’s blade. "The topic of the movie was considered politically so highly sensitive it was censored and prohibited just before its theatrical release in many of the former 'Iron Curtain' countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria - and even in neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden," says the Internet Movie Data Base.

The theatrical premiere for most of those countries was held after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1993. That was more than 30 years following its original theatrical release.

As hard as it may be for many to believe, the living word of God or is it the word of the living God, has been censored again, and again and again.

Wikipedia addresses this type of “shut your mouth“ activity. "Religious censorship is the means by which any material objectionable to a certain faith is removed." This often involves a dominant religion forcing limitations on less prevalent ones. Alternatively, one religion may shun the works of another when they believe the content is not appropriate for their faith."

Additional forms of censorship include corporate censorship, censorship of state secrets and prevention of attention and censorship of educational sources.

A little closer to home is my personal tale. I was the first newspaper editor of my Community College in Boston. The school had flung open its doors to me, and I took full advantage of their generosity by nearly closing and locking those doors on my ass. And it was all about one issue of the newspaper that featured the headline "Jesus Christ or Shit." No, I didn’t do that---I was out of town at the time. That was the work of the associate editor, an 18-year-old dip shit (I was 33 at the time), who tried to be cute and dash my efforts to confront the administration and the issue of censorship directly.

Yes, I did use the terms in my editorial, but I was not so brazen as to scream irresponsibly such an in-your-face headline. Just as you’d expect, they pulled that publication post haste, and I really couldn’t say them nay. Lesson learned? Do not trust subordinates unless they’ve proven that they deserve that trust.

Two more personal examples of newspapers riding roughshod over writers.

1. While writing stories for a local rag, I interviewed a poet who had his works published by a company that was doing business as a vanity publisher. He had to pay for the privilege, which really grates on my nerves. Since I had a similar run in with this type of operation, and I’ll admit to still harboring a grudge against the whole operation, I let slip the name of the business. Woops! The editor called me and laid the law down on me. As a result, he deleted the reference to the publisher by name, citing the possibility that the publisher just might sue the newspaper and me. And what could I say?

2. One more time. I was doing hard labor as a correspondent for another local source of news, and I put in my column that one of the local dignitaries had recently had a knee replacement performed on him, which he was so proud of that he was showing his battle scar around to one and all. Can’t do that I learned. In substance, I shouldn’t get too graphic because it might offend breakfast eaters. Oh, how damned parental.

Not enough, you say. How about that time when as a pre-teen student in a Catholic grammar school I became embroiled in a scandalous adventure I like to call “Taking it all too literally.” I was given a writing assignment and the topic I chose was “How to start a fire without matches. Well, it all came to me in a creative flash: I‘d pen a story about a young man torching an apartment building by employing a cigarette lighter. I was really proud of my achievement. Sister Superior and my parents, obviously operating from a different perspective, considered it a sign of mental instability or creeping criminality. And, the irony of it all? My mother was a writer and a published author.

Back to Santa Claus. Even Santa Claus can be told what to say and what not to say. And I should know, for after all, I was Santa Claus.

Let me tell you a tale that's been told but once, and that to a trusted confidant. Just a few years ago (probably about 15 or so) I took on the task of spreading joy or jail time to worthy and spoiled brats of all sexes at a local super store. Since I had no costume of my own, I had to rent one, that from a local costumer. After swearing on a bible (likely the King Bob version), she told me that I should not say "Ho ho ho!" because it might offend the mothers and definitely would scare the little children. So, I didn’t.

Censorship in music and popular culture is rampant and runaway.

Remember the Elvis vs. Ed Sullivan debacle? And today’s rap artists? Music censorship has been implemented by states, religions, educational systems, families, retailers and lobbying groups – and in most cases they violate international conventions of human rights.

More from Wikipedia. "Aside from the usual justifications of pornography, language and violence, some movies are censored due to changing racial attitudes or political correctness in order to avoid ethnic stereotyping and/or ethnic offense despite its historical or artistic value."

Talking about “incorrect,” another personal example follows: Do you all remember Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice?” Well, I sort of wish I didn’t because my personal experience with this play was anything but innocuous. 15 years ago or so I got sucked into a local theatre production of “The Merchant of Venice” which turned out to be an exercise in humility for me and a sadistic slap in the face to the bard. What came down through the ages as Shakespeare’s tale that painted an unflattering picture of one particular Jewish money lender was transmogrified into a take off of Star Trek, a sucked dry of all the venom and relevancy version that the bard had injected it with. If I had been courageous enough, I would have bowed out, not gracefully, but I was so in love with getting over that I stayed till the bitter end, sadly. It’s a mistake I’ll never make again.

Finally, one more time: I landed a role in an independent movie a few years ago, and I voiced the opinion that it would be a good idea for my character to use the “F” word. The director told me that he couldn’t allow that because that would cause his film to lose the highly valuable PG rating.

Additional types of censorship include Meta censorship, which is in effect censorship of censorship; Creative censorship, used in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; State-imposed censorship, carried on by such closed societies as the former Soviet Union and Internet censorship.

"The People's Republic of China, which continues Communist rule in politics, if not in the controlled economy, employs some 30,000 'Internet police' to monitor the internet and popular search engines such as Google and Yahoo," says Wikipedia.

For our purposes, even after this brief foray into the topic, there can be only one clear-cut victor in this unceasing battle between freedom of speech and censorship, And the winner is...DRUM ROLL, PLEASE...Sorry, that information is classified.

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