Freedom of Speech Is It Being Abused?

Free Speech

THE door to the 21st century is about to swing open. No doubt the new century will bring new hopes, ideals, mores, visions of amazing technologies, and demands for greater freedoms. Already, traditional views of governments, religions, and people are giving way to new voices and demands. In many places the rush is on to remove existing restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, regardless of the consequences!

What was once frowned on and prohibited by radio and television broadcasters and censors—obscene language and pornographic scenes and gestures—is now commonplace in many countries, cloaked by the right of freedom of speech!

Those skilled in the use of computers, both adults and children, can now transmit graphic pictures of lewd sex acts to other continents within seconds and converse with known sex offenders and child molesters who ask for names and addresses for clandestine rendezvous.

Music with lyrics that suggest and encourage suicide and the killing of parents, police, and government officials is now heard daily on radio and television or is on recordings played by children.

Few of those demanding unrestricted freedom of speech would disagree with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who over a half century ago wrote in a famous landmark decision regarding freedom of speech:

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

The resulting consequences of such an act are obvious. How unreasonable, then, for these same ones to place little or no value on a subsequent sentence of that same decision and act in headstrong defiance of it.

“The question in every case,” said Holmes, “is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

Computer Pornography

“Sex is everywhere these days,” reported Time magazine, “in books, magazines, films, television, music videos and bus-stop perfume ads. It is printed on dial-a-porn business cards and slipped under windshield wipers. . . .

Most Americans have become so inured to the open display of eroticism—and the arguments for why it enjoys special status under the First Amendment [freedom of speech]—that they hardly notice it’s there.” There is, however, something about the combination of explicit sex and computers that has brought new dimension and meaning to the word “pornography.” It has become popular, pervasive, and worldwide in scope.

According to one study, subscribers to adult-oriented computer bulletin-board systems, who were willing to pay monthly fees ranging from $10 to $30, were found in “more than 2,000 cities in all 50 states and 40 countries, territories and provinces around the world—including some countries like China, where possession of pornography can be a capital offense.”

Computer pornography,
“a grab bag of ‘deviant’ material”

Time magazine described one type of computer pornography as “a grab bag of ‘deviant’ material that includes images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with a barnyard full of animals.” The appearance of material like this on a public computer network, accessible to men, women, and children around the world, raises serious questions about the abuse of freedom of speech.

“Once children are on-line,” noted a British newspaper, “hard-core pornography is not restricted to the newsagents’ top shelves, potentially it is at the fingertips of any child, and that means in the privacy of the bedroom.” It is predicted that 47 percent of all British homes with computers will be hooked up to computer networks by the end of 1996. “Many British parents are excluded from the high-technology world their children inhabit. In the past 18 months ‘surfing the Net’ has become one of the most popular teenage pastimes,” the paper said.

Kathleen Mahoney, a professor of law at the University of Calgary, Canada, and an expert in legal issues surrounding pornography, said: “The public should be aware that a wholly uncontrolled medium exists through which children can be abused and exploited.” One Canadian police official said: “The signs are clear that a boom in computer-related child pornography cases is on the horizon.” Many family counseling groups insist that computer pornography seen by children and the influence it can have on them “represent a clear and present danger.”

Dissenting Opinions

Civil libertarians are outraged over any efforts by Congress to restrict such things as computer pornography, in line with the ruling of Justice Holmes and the U.S. Supreme Court. “It’s a frontal assault on the First Amendment,” declared a Harvard law professor. Even veteran prosecutors ridicule it, commented Time magazine.

“It won’t pass scrutiny even in misdemeanor court,” said one. “It’s government censorship,” said an official of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The First Amendment shouldn’t end where the Internet begins,” Time quoted him as saying. “It is clearly a violation of free speech,” announced a U.S. congressman, “and it’s a violation of the right of adults to communicate with each other.”

A professor at New York Law School argues that there is good in various expressions about sex, beyond civil rights and free speech. “Sex on the Internet might actually be good for young people,” Time reported on her view. “[Cyberspace] is a safe space in which to explore the forbidden and the taboo . . . It offers the possibility for genuine, unembarrassed conversations about accurate as well as fantasy images of sex,” she said.

Also up in arms over any restrictions of pornography on computer networks are many youths, especially university students. Some have marched in protest over what they consider an abridgment of their rights of freedom of speech.

Although not that of a student, one voice quoted in The New York Times no doubt echoes the sentiments of many who object to any proposal that would prohibit pornography on computers: “I suspect it will be laughed at collectively by the Internet users of this country and ignored, and as for the rest of the world’s Internet community, it will make the United States a laughingstock.”

In reporting a statement from an official of a civil liberties group, U.S.News & World Report made the comment: “Cyberspace [computer networks] may give freedom of speech more muscle than the First Amendment does. Indeed, it may already ‘have become literally impossible for a government to shut people up.'”

In Canada battles are raging over what may violate the freedom of expressions provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Arrests have been made of artists whose paintings have raised the ire of critics and police, who label them “obscene.”

Artists and free-speech advocates have united to protest and denounce the arrests as an infringement of their freedom of speech. Until about four years ago, pornographic videotapes were routinely seized by police under Canada’s obscenity law, and cases were brought to trial and convictions won against the merchants who sold them.

All of that changed, however, in 1992, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a landmark case that such products were protected from prosecution because of the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The court ruling “has brought marked changes to Canadian society,” wrote Maclean’s magazine. “In many cities it is now common to find hard-core pornographic magazines and videos in corner stores,” the magazine observed. Even those that the court ruled may be banned are still available for consumers.

“I know if you go in there you will find things that may be over the line,” said one police official. “That’s probably stuff we could go and lay charges on. But . . . we haven’t got the time.” They also have no guarantee that the charges would stick. In this permissive age, the accent is on unlimited personal freedom, and courts are often ruled by public opinion. But whatever the rationale, the debate will continue to arouse deep and divisive passions on both sides—for and against.

Once upon a time, Japan found itself under heavy restrictions regarding freedom of speech and the press. An earthquake, for example, that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and left over a thousand dead could not be reported frankly.

Cases of corruption and of lovers’ killing each other in suicide pacts could not be reported. Newspaper editors caved in to governmental threats as controls increased in intensity even over what were considered trivialities. Following World War II, however, restrictions were lifted and Japan enjoyed more freedom of speech and the press.

Indeed, the pendulum swung toward the other extreme as magazines and some children’s comic books were filled with erotic and obscene drawings. The Daily Yomiuri, a leading Tokyo newspaper, once noted:

“Perhaps one of the most shocking sights for a foreigner newly-arrived in Japan is the businessmen reading sexually explicit comic books on Tokyo subways. Now the trend seems to be affecting the other half of the population, as ‘hard core’ women’s comic books appear on the shelves of book stores and supermarkets.”

In 1995 the reputable newspaper Asahi Shimbun called Japan a “Porn Paradise.” While the editors and publishers sought a voluntary solution to objections from parents rather than government regulations, young readers protested. One wonders, ‘Whose voices will finally prevail?’

Freedom of speech is a subject of much controversy at present in France. “Without a doubt,” wrote French author Jean Morange in his book on freedom of speech, “the history of freedom of speech has not ended, and it will continue to create divisions. . . . Hardly a year goes by without the release of a film or a television series or an advertising campaign causing a fierce reaction, reawakening the old and never-ending debate regarding censorship.”

An article appearing in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro reported that a rap group called Ministère amer (Bitter Ministry) is urging its fans to kill policemen. One of their lyrics says: “There will be no peace unless the [police] rest in peace.” “On our record,” declared the spokesman of the group, “we tell them to burn down the police station and sacrifice the [police]. What could be more normal?” No action has been taken against the rap group.

Rap groups in America also advocate the killing of police and declare the right to make such expressions under the protection of freedom of speech. In France, Italy, England and other nations in Europe and around the world, the cry can be heard from all sectors that no limits should be put on the freedom to speak publicly, even if the speech is “of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.” When will the controversy end, and whose side will emerge the winner?