Issue 76, Winter 1999/2000

End of Year (Century? Millennium?) Musings

For those who care about free expression, it’s been a pretty good century. I was recently reminded of this by NCAC Board member, Chris Finan, president of American Booksellers for Free Expression. During the last hundred years, the McCarthy era notwithstanding, First Amendment protections have extended to an increasingly diverse group of speakers and ideas, including organized labor, civil rights protestors and gay activists, proponents of sex education and information about contraception and abortion, the Amish, followers of Santeria, and atheists, not to mention the press, publishers, entertainers, whistle-blowers, open government groups, and countless readers, writers, artists, museum-goers, web surfers, researchers, and many more.

At the end of the century, however, the First Amendment has fallen into disrepute among some of its beneficiaries. Those who profit from artistic freedom often seem reluctant to defend it; concerns about speech that promotes bigotry and hatred have raised doubts about principled adherence to the First Amendment; for some, issues like human rights, and economic or environmental justice have greater urgency.

Readers of Censorship News recognize that NCAC’s advocacy of free speech is often in service of these causes. Of course we defend both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech, trusting in the maxim that more speech, not enforced silence, is the only acceptable response to speech we hate, and distrusting government to decide what is good and bad in speech, art, and ideas. Readers of CN will also recognize something that many others will not: notwithstanding the notable gains, censorship is very much alive and well in this country, and its targets most often are not hateful speech, but sexual expression, religious heterodoxy, and flights of fancy like Harry Potter.

The First Amendment embodies the spirit of tolerance, without which diverse democratic communities cannot thrive. It is still the right that is necessary to preserve all others. Vigilance is still the price of liberty.

Some things don’t change.