Monday, March 17, 2008

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What is Happening to Freedom of Speech?

Nadia Hava-Robbins, MA

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical

naked,dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry

dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up

smoking the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities

contemplating jazz…

--Allen Ginsberg, excerpted from “Howl”


In 1950, Allen Ginsberg wrote an epic poem, “Howl”, which attacked the consumerism and conformism of the 1950’s and proclaimed a newly emerging American counterculture. Lawrence Ferlenghetti faced jail and a fine fifty years ago for first publishing “Howl”. The poem was declared obscene and banned from schools and any public broadcasting. On October 13, 1957, Judge Clayton Horn ruled the poem not obscene. In essence, he stated that although the theme of “Howl” presents unorthodoxand controversial ideas and coarse and vulgar language, unless the book is entirely lacking in social importance it cannot be held obscene.

Fifty years later and in spite of the judge’s ruling, “Howl” remains as controversial asever. Good luck finding the poem in the school literature, 21st century or not. People are still afraid to broadcast “Howl” because the courts may declare it obscene regardless and issue a single fine of a million dollars which would completely destroy a non-commercial station. WBAI, the Pacifica Foundation station in New York will not broadcast “Howl” for this reason but will post it online in a special, online-only program called “Howl Against Censorship”. It will be posted on www.pacifica.org, the internet home of the Berkeley based Pacifica Foundation, because online sites do not fall under the FCC’s purview. WBAI program director, Bernard White, admitted that they are surrounded by
a lot of red ink.

The “Howl” is a prime example of government censorship of an important critique of American Culture.

It is ironic that a poem of social significance will not be broadcast nor read in the schools, perhaps because of its social significance and not necessarily because of its strong language, yet TV programming – everyday entertainment for all ages, children and adults, is full of crime, aggression, sexual situations, including strong language and statesponsored terrorism, etc. What a great way to reinforce violence and aggression! On the other hand, encouraging critical thinking regarding current social and political issues could prove to be a dangerous proposition. Over the summer of 2007, Ken Burn’s World War II documentary, “The War” was broadcast on San Francisco’s KQED. It was the clean” version if there could be such a thing, because the station feared FCC fines over
four letter words. Now, consider and weigh the potential impact of four letter words compared to a 14 hour visually graphic documentary about the brutality of war. Did the removal of four letter words really “clean up” the documentary?


But one does not need to be using provocative, “bad” or strong language to be censored or penalized. Recently, a teacher was fired for sharing with her students that she attended a demonstration against the war. If the USA’s governing body was a dictatorship, free speech would indeed be a dangerous weapon to be curtailed, but we are led to believe that we live in a democracy, that we have freedom of speech. Do we? To what degree? Is that good enough??


2007 Nadia Hava-Robbins