Issue 96, Winter 2004/2005

Reflections on NCAC’s 30 Years

30 years ago, when NCAC was founded, the McCarthy era was relatively fresh in people’s minds and served as a massive civics lesson about the value of freedom of speech. For those who didn’t recall McCarthyism, the Vietnam war era provided an even more recent object lesson about the importance of open government, accountability, and dissent.

Since then, other pressing concerns have taken center stage—for example, civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive freedom, gay rights, and environmental protection. In these struggles, free speech has sometimes appeared to be part of the problem, rather than the solution. The First Amendment does, after all, protect speech that is offensive, objectionable, wrong-headed, and just obnoxious.

The landscape has shifted again, however. The right of dissent is under open assault, government secrecy is rampant, scientific research is undermined by political constraints, and public school courses are often held hostage to ideology. In short, free expression is again under siege.

Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s equal opportunity policies to suppress all kinds of expression inspired civil rights advocates, taxi drivers, cops, the KKK, and assorted others to join forces to fight for the right of free speech and assembly. Perhaps the Bush administration, if its second term follows the repressive patterns laid out in the first, will create another "teachable moment" about the value of free speech.

30 years later, and we are, in some respects, charged with re-building the infrastructure of a free society: reminding some and educating others about why art and literature matter; why expression must be open and honest, even if that means it is sometimes disturbing, unsettling, or offensive; why knowledge is critical for its own sake; why debate and dissent strengthen and sharpen, rather than erode, national purpose; why children need to learn something of life vicariously before they experience it; why there is no substitute for unbiased research and information.

The current pressure to conform to political, corporate, religious, and ideological agendas poses a profound threat to the integrity of intellectual activity, intellectual freedom, and knowledge itself period. Just connect the dots.