Issue 77, Spring 2000

Is free speech a positive good, or a necessary evil? Ask Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, imprisoned in Cuba over a political article, or friends of Konca Kuris, a Turkish writer tortured and killed for her feminist views of Islam. They will tell you that it is an essential human right, basic to democratic societies and enlightened communities. Paradoxically, in the United States, which enjoys perhaps the strongest legal protection for free expression anywhere, it is often characterized more as an evil, and not always a necessary one.

A leader of the drive to censor Internet access in the Holland, Michigan, library has opposed pornography since he was twelve, when the family barn was struck by lightning and burned down—after he hid there to read a pornographic book. He concluded that God punished him. A New Jersey parent, another outspoken advocate of Internet filtering, said that her son’s “mind was molested by cyberpornography,” by inadvertently viewing a sexual image on the Internet.

What can anyone possibly say about the importance of free expression to someone pursuing a religious mission against pornography, or someone who sees no meaningful distinction between physical abuse and an unwanted image on a screen? Is there a persuasive message to people who are inclined, in Ben Franklin’s famous words, to “give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety”?

Families for Internet Access, a grassroots group in Holland, Michigan, accomplished what at first seemed impossible. Stressing pragmatic concerns and local decision-making, FIA persuaded voters in this conservative town that Internet filtering would sacrifice too much—in access to information, choices, and autonomy. They turned the American Family Association’s and Family Research Council’s support for filtering into a liability—local residents ultimately resisted outsiders telling them how to run their library and raise their children. Some apparently agreed with a Michigan reader who wrote that the filtering proposal was “a form of class discrimination. Those who cannot afford computers at home are being told…what they may and may not see and learn. It’s modern book burning….”

Kudos to the FIA for crafting a message that resonated in their community. It’s gratifying that the residents of Holland voted as they did. It remains somewhat disheartening that they were afraid to invoke the First Amendment proudly and publicly in doing so. But that’s what happens when free speech is seen as a necessary evil, and not as a necessity.