Free speech is sacred

By James A. Haught | 13 September 2023
Freethought Now

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Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught sadly died on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a bunch of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out in the coming weeks.

Free speech means the right to voice any beliefs or ideas, even unpopular ones — orally, on paper, on the Internet or anywhere — without fear of being punished. Sometimes, it is called freedom of expression. Through history, various advances slowly won this right, which lies at the very heart of democracy. It’s all about the right to think freely — safe from arrest or prosecution.

Some ancient Greeks and Romans first proposed tolerance of differing viewpoints. In 1501, Pope Alexander XI of the notorious Borgias, however, ordered the censorship of unwanted ideas. The Church’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum, listing banned books, was launched in 1559 and continued for centuries, forbidding believers to read works of Descartes, Galileo, David Hume, John Locke, Daniel Defoe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and many other thinkers. In France, printer-scholar Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546 for his unorthodox writings. England’s infamous Star Chamber, which tortured and mutilated nonconformists, also censored printed material.

In 1644, poet John Milton’s Areopagitica appealed to the English Parliament to stop the censorship of writings. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” he wrote.

Free speech is a bedrock principle for liberals — and has been for centuries. Crusading newspaper columnist Heywood Broun once said: “Free speech is about as good a cause as the world has ever known.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. remarked: “The very aim of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think.”  And 19th century poet Heinrich Heine wrote: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

The American Library Association and Association of American Publishers have stated jointly: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove books from sale, to censor textbooks, to label ‘controversial’ books, to distribute lists of ‘objectionable’ books or authors, and to purge libraries.”

America’s First Amendment forbids any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” — yet conservatives spent centuries trying to banish sex from written or spoken acknowledgement. Prudish censors banned writings by Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, the Marquis de Sade and numerous others. An 1897 court ruling declared a newspaper called the Chicago Dispatch “obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent.” The mid-18th century novel Fanny Hill was outlawed in Boston as late as 1966.

Sex censorship peaked in the late 1800s under priggish Anthony Comstock, a Civil War veteran who had been offended by the coarse language of fellow Union soldiers. In 1873, Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and began a lifelong career of stamping out sex. That same year, he induced Congress to pass the notorious Comstock Law banning “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material from the mail or other public venues. It also outlawed mentions of birth control, abortion, venereal disease and the like. It even prevented anatomy textbooks from being mailed to medical students.

Comstock was made a postal inspector with a right to carry a pistol. He became a dynamo attacking and harassing all writers who mentioned sex. He called himself “a weeder in God’s garden.” When Ida Craddock wrote marriage manuals containing sexual details, Comstock had her sentenced to federal prison. She committed suicide on the eve of reporting to jail.

Comstock alerted police about a George Bernard Shaw play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and called Shaw an “Irish smut dealer.” Shaw replied that “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.” He said it makes Europeans see America as “a provincial place, a second-rate, country-town civilization after all.”

Comstock repeatedly prosecuted Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, for advocating birth control. He boasted that he caused 4,000 arrests, drove 15 people to suicide, destroyed 15 tons of books and 284,000 pounds of plates for printing books.

Conservative sexual censorship continued for decades in America. In 1940, publisher Jacob Brussel reprinted Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer describing his sex life as an American in France in the 1930s. Brussel was thrown into prison for three years. In 1961, Grove Press again printed the book and was forced to spend $100,000 fighting 60 censorship cases. A judge in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court once called it “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” However, in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in Grove Press v. Gerstein that the book wasn’t obscene.

In subsequent rulings, the high court declared that sexual materials can be banned only if they violate three standards: (1) they appeal to prurient interest in ways that breach “contemporary community standards,” (2) they are presented in “a patently offensive way” and (3) the entire work “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Since then, obscenity prosecutions have declined in America. And the Internet has in recent years brought a flood of explicit sex of every imaginable sort.

Finally, a horrible new type of censorship — killing writers and publishers — has emerged in the current era.

Islam is based on a belief that the angel Gabriel dictated the Quran to Muhammad, but in 1988 Muslim-born novelist Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, which contains dream scenes subtly lampooning the faith’s basic claim. Muslims around the world exploded in rage and rioting. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to murder Rushdie and his publishers. The author hid for years with round-the-clock police protection but one of his translators was stabbed to death and others associated with the book were severely harmed. In 1993 at Sivas, Turkey, a mob of worshippers from a mosque attacked a hotel hosting an arts conference that featured a writer who had attempted to publish Rushdie’s book, killing 37 people. Rushdie himself was grievously injured in an assault just last year at a literary event.

A satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, repeatedly mocked Islam in writings and cartoons. In early 2015, armed Muslim attackers stormed the publication’s Paris office and killed a dozen people. Various other religion-driven murders — a supreme form of censorship — have occurred.

Free speech is a central liberal ideal that has been subjected to various dire threats over the years.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught died on 23 July 2023. He was editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and was a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He was also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book was Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns were distributed by national syndicates. He was in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.

Vatican: Forbidden Works

The First Amendment Salon: On Censorship & the Ghost of Anthony Comstock

The Books Getting Banned From Schools

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