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The Case Against Censorship

The Case Against Censorship

Author: Victoria Brownworth

November 20, 2012

I can’t remember when freedom of speech didn’t matter to me. Perhaps it was from growing up with activist parents who were Socialists and civil rights workers, or perhaps it was the repressive nature of my Catholic school education juxtaposed with the martyrdom of the saints who were willing to die for their beliefs. It’s hard to say. But every time I have been arrested in my life, it has been in one or another protest—exercising my rights as a citizen to speak out—from my high school years protesting the waning days of the Vietnam War to the 1980s and 90s in ACT-UP die-ins in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

In September when a YouTube video allegedly defaming Mohammed sparked violence throughout the Middle East, Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations Secretary General, stated that freedom of expression has its limits.

He was not talking about the violent protestors, but about the filmmaker.

On the last Friday in September, Samantha Pawlucy, a high school sophomore in Philadelphia, where I live, went to school on casual Friday wearing a pale pink T-shirt with white lettering that read: Romney/Ryan.

When she entered her geometry class, her teacher, Lynette Gaymon, told her that theirs was a “Democratic” school and she had to remove the shirt or leave the class, saying the shirt was akin to one reading “KKK.” When Pawlucy refused to either remove her shirt or leave the classroom, Gaymon taunted her and encouraged her students to do the same. She even went into the hallway and told others to “look at what she’s wearing.”

After a week of attacks, Pawlucy was forced to transfer to another school.

In the U.K., a move to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act of 1986 has been underway since May and under immediate review since mid-September. A wide array of groups has protested the word which makes it an offense to say almost anything that can be construed as insulting or controversial. On Oct. 15, gay writer and actor Stephen Fry tweeted, “Insults aren’t very nice, but should they be illegal? Amend Section 5.”

I’m with Fry in querying where we draw the line on free speech. The events in September across the Middle East were incredibly disturbing. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai called on the U.S. to “punish the filmmaker” who had made the offensive YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims.” Yet Afghanistan is one of the world’s most repressive nations with regard to free speech—as well as with regard to the rights of women, lesbians and gay men.

Free speech issues should be paramount for all LGBT writers. Yet more and more often I see queer writers with an expectation of free speech for themselves, but not for others.

Alas, free speech doesn’t work that way. What represses some represses us all. Jane Addams, one of our great lesbian foremothers in America and one of the most important activists the U.S. has ever known, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, was adamant about the importance of free speech in times of war and peace.

Addams noted, “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” Addams was speaking categorically, not individually, so perhaps it would have been more correct to say “one’s self,” but the point is clear: free speech is for everyone, even—and perhaps most especially—the speech we don’t like.

Think of all the people who hate what we have to say as LGBT writers and activists. The mind boggles. Think of all the places where our very being is anathema: In Jamaica, gay men and lesbians are beaten, raped and killed on a regular basis. In South Africa, “corrective rape” of lesbians has become a new trend. In Iran, Ahmadinejad claims we don’t exist, yet gay men were executed last year in that country for being gay. In Gaza, the world capital of honor killings, lesbians are murdered by their own family members for the shame of loving other women, even as the Palestinian hierarchy protests repression from Israel.

As long as horrors like these exist, we must speak out against them—we must exercise our rights to free speech.

But therein lies the conundrum, of course, because in doing so, we may offend. We may, as Ban Ki Moon suggests, cross the boundaries others would place or have placed on our freedom of expression.

Fundamentalists of all stripes—Islamist, Christian, Orthodox Jew—are revulsed by our very existence as queers. So when we speak our truth, our existence, our right to live and love to their unholy power (or their immorality as Addams frames it), we are cast (as Karzai cast America as a whole after the YouTube video incident) as infidels and blasphemers.

In the late 1980s, I was living part of the time in London. As it happened, I was in North London the day the police came and took  Salman Rushdie’s then-wife, writer Marianne Wiggins, into protective custody after a fatwah was issued against Rushdie because of a few scenes in his book The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie has a new book out about his time in exile, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. An interview I heard with Rushdie on NPR a few weeks back ran counterpoint to the latest furor over alleged slights to Mohammed in the Middle East. The irony was palpable.

Rushdie’s memoir is a compelling book—it details the anger and tedium and life-altering drama of such an experience, but it also delves into the entire concept of literary license and speech as we know it. Or wish we knew it.

I remember those days in London with such clarity, because I had never experienced such cognitive dissonance with people I knew to be otherwise rational. Yet I knew several Muslim writers at the time who, when asked their opinion on Rushdie, never skipped a beat when they responded that yes, he should be executed. And as they spoke, it was impossible for me not to remember the abject fear on the face of Rushdie’s wife, Marianne Wiggins, a writer whose work I thought was at least as brilliant as Rushdie’s, as she was led into the waiting car. (Fear and hiding would destroy their marriage as Rushdie explains in Joseph Anton.)

I doubt many of those rampaging through the streets over the ten-minute anti-Muslim video had actually seen it, just as I doubt many of those who wanted Rushdie dead had read his book. And therein lies the peril. As the protestors burned down theaters, I wondered what the theme was—other than the same tired “death to America” trope of course. Was the idea to burn out the very idea of speech that wasn’t sanctioned by religious fiat?

Queers find themselves on both sides of the free speech question. Those of us who are writers want the freedom to write and say what we want. I know I do. Yet a preponderance of LGBT people have become part of the larger wave of those who would limit free speech. Because while we want to be able to say whatever we want about “them,” we do not want “them” to say whatever they want about us.

But what about hate speech, we argue?

What about it? What constitutes hate speech and what constitutes free speech? That’s the question being posed before Parliament right now in the U.K. in deciding whether or not to rescind the offending—or protective—”insulting” from Section 5.

But what about Chick-fil-A and Michele Bachmann and Fred Phelps and anyone who says anything we don’t like? Several queer friends said they would never watch Jon Stewart again because he claimed the free speech argument for Chick-fil-A’s CEO. But they still shop at Wal-Mart, because the Walton family has been less overt in its condemnation of queers—they just give money to anti-gay causes sotto voce.

It’s a slippery slope, this free speech argument, because it impacts us so directly and so definingly. How can we have a broad, discursive, expansive literature of LGBT life without free speech that might offend the straight world? Conversely, how do we quell our own innate desire to shut down the speech of anyone who equivocates on our perception of ourselves as LGBT people?

Yet isn’t that the sine qua non of the debate? Noam Chomsky, philosopher and perhaps America’s last remaining true progressive, is succinct and unequivocal about this. Chomsky says, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

But one writer friend disagrees. She insisted that the Muslim film was the very definition of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ delineation of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Yet there are limitations to that theater, and it can’t be everywhere in the world, all the time. Plus, if that film is indeed “fire!” it presumes that we expect certain groups of people to be so intolerant and so out of control, that they can’t help themselves: if you draw a cartoon of a turban that looks like a bomb about to go off, then people will have to riot and destroy and kill. Not just the cartoonist/satirist, but anyone else who happens to be in the way of their rage.

The fact is, the YouTube video was not shouting fire in a crowded theater. That narrow interpretation of what is not protected by the First Amendment explains very clearly—because Holmes was a jurist of genius—what can and cannot be said. Yelling fire in a crowded theater will cause a level of pandemonium that could very well result in people being killed. We’ve seen it happen. But the world is not a theater. And we are all capable of self-restraint when enraged by speech. Lesbians and gay men were not dragging Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy out of his house and beating him to death, nor has he had to go into hiding for the next decade because of what he said. Because most of us can indeed control our actions, no matter what slight has been visited upon us individually or collectively.

So yes, there are indeed limits. Which means in the parts of the world that exalt free speech—which are becoming fewer and fewer—we need to be careful to protect it, even when it galls us.

No one wanted neo-Nazis marching through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois, but the ACLU had to support their right to free speech. Why? Because free speech is rarely what we want to hear. It’s usually something that will offend someone, somewhere. Speech we all agree on hardly matters. It’s when conflict arises that speech takes on a taint.

And that’s what queers have to remember as we seek to narrow free speech further and further ourselves in our quest for political correctness and some level of tolerance. Free speech is complicated—it’s rarely black and white and it rarely has a single component. Adrienne Rich wrote extensively about self-censorship. How women self-censor, how lesbians do. The marginalized are used to not speaking, to being wary, to carefully framing our statements so as not to offend the majority. But self-censorship is a form of silence.

If Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy says something about queers that we don’t like on a radio show, well, that’s actually his right. Just as it is then our right in response to boycott his restaurants and tell people why. Most of us learn causation as toddlers. So why are we surprised as adults when it’s all around us?

I’d love to silence the Fred Phelpses and Maggie Gallaghers and Dan Cathys out there. I’d even like to silence the guy—whatever name he’s using now—who made that YouTube video. But then I’d also have to silence Salman Rushdie and myself. And I don’t want to do that.

Free speech is a privilege few people have. When Malala Yousafzai—a 15-year-old Pashtun activist speaking out for the rights of girls to be educated in Pakistan—was shot in the head by the Taliban on Oct. 9, the limitations of free speech were clarified for many in both Pakistan and around the globe.

Malala had been speaking out for years—she had been awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize, she was chair of the District Child Assembly in the heavily restrictive Swat Valley where she lived. She’d been an activist since the age of 11. She’d risked her young life for four years out of 15. And as she lies in a U.K. hospital where she was airlifted for treatment, we don’t know if she will recover. The entire top of her skull was shattered and will have to be rebuilt to protect her young brain. But how much damage to that brain remains unknown.

And what was her crime, again? Speaking out in a world where women and girls opening their mouths in protest is anathema.

In the West we are horrified by this crime against this young girl. But what about the lesser crime against the girl in Philadelphia, who was exercising her own free speech rights in a country where girls can go to school and free speech is a supposed given? I’m sure I would have liked to rip that T-shirt right off her if I had been her teacher. But then I would have had to do the same to all the students wearing T-shirts whose slogans I supported. Better to turn the T-shirt into a teachable moment about divergent views and, ahem, free speech.

It’s wearing, this free speech argument. I want it and I don’t want people who say things and believe things I find objectionable to have it—yet as Addams stipulates, that’s immoral at its core. As Voltaire wrote, “Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.” And Walt Whitman’s comment that “the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book” was made before his own work was banned. It’s difficult to imagine in 2012 how Leaves of Grass was ever deemed obscene and banned, but the fact is, queer writers have a history with being censored. Free speech? Not for us.
\Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall–their work seems so tame today, yet they were subject to obscenity trials. So much of the work we hold dear as writers and especially as queer writers, was implacably the kind of work no one wanted to hear about when it was published. Yet today even within our own community, we tell each other what language can and cannot be used, what can and cannot be said.

Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley addressed the turbulent nature of free speech in the Washington Post on Oct. 14. In “The Death of Free Speech,” Turley noted, “Free speech is being balkanized into prohibited and permitted areas by redefining speech in terms of its social impact. Increasingly, it seems that the West is re-discovering the tranquility that comes with forced silence. What is fascinating is that this trend is based on principles of tolerance and pluralism–once viewed as the values underlying free speech.”

Turley explains that free speech is dying in the West–the very place that one thinks of as being the keystone of freedom of expression. It’s a slow death by a thousand cuts, he asserts, and those cuts are political correctness writ large and long.

But where will that leave LGBT writers–or high school girls in Philadelphia or Pakistan or anywhere else who dare to step outside whatever the status quo is supposed to be?

My thought is, not in a good place.

How often have queer writers–myself included–crossed status quo boundaries with our writing in the straight community and even our own? The mainstreaming of queers has made it harder and harder for those of us who aspire to and believe in a separate and distinct queer culture to promote our perspective. Where we were once forced to the margins or kept underground or sent to obscenity trials for speaking “the love that dare not speak its name,” now we are expected to stay within self-imposed margins of LGBT political correctness which neuters us as writers, as voices, as truth to the power of a new status quo. Isn’t that what Rich and Whitman, Wilde and Hall were doing?

Where does that authoritarian political correctness leave us as writers–or as a community? Isn’t one of the roles of the writer, particularly the minority writer, to challenge the status quo, the shibboleths, the political and social norms–even if they are our own?

It is.

And yet, more and more often political correctness supersedes or simply over-rides free speech.

If we frame the free speech argument in the context of what Ban Ki Moon said about the YouTube video, then restraining free speech becomes a means of maintaining social order. Which sounds suspiciously like totalitarianism. And when we consider all the countries in which it is still illegal to even be a lesbian or gay man, aren’t we obligated as writers to question authority?

I’ve been covering Washington politics for newspapers and magazines, mainstream and queer, since the second Reagan term. But it has only been during the Obama Administration that I have faced censorship from queer publications. My harsh critiques in reportage or commentary of previous administrations, including that of Bill Clinton, never raised as much as an eyebrow, let alone ire. Yet for the past four years, criticism of the President and especially his Justice Department has been met with censorship on a disturbingly regular basis.

Doesn’t such censorship harm us as a community? Shouldn’t we know that this president has been muzzling free speech and civil liberties through his Justice Department (the ACLU has been especially critical on this point) or that he has deported more undocumented persons–among them a significant number of queers, like the Australian partner of a person with AIDS in San Francisco–than any other president? Shouldn’t we find his treatment of gay soldier and whistle-blower (there’s that pesky free speech again) Bradley Manning, about whom I have written extensively and whose treatment human rights groups have called torture, problematic? Shouldn’t we hold Obama to the same standard we held Reagan, both Bushes and even Clinton?

Censorship is not without its perils. As writers and intellectuals especially, we shake our heads when we contemplate censorship in China where one can’t even Google certain words or where intellectual artists like Ai WeiWei are under constant scrutiny when they aren’t under actual arrest. Yet we are more than willing to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen when the curtailment of free speech hits closer to home.

Nevertheless censorship, as the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart noted, is “the hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” (Of course Stewart himself had some issues with the First Amendment. It was Stewart who famously said when defining obscenity that he would know when he saw it.)

As a writer, journalist and queer activist, I worry about that slippery slope to authoritarianism, whether it’s in the larger context of straight society that has had a centuries-long censoring stranglehold on queer writers or if it is the unwritten rule of political correctness within our own community that disallows any argument with our own ever-evolving status quo.

Consider, for example, that Bradley Manning is in prison–likely for life–for allegedly leaking secret documents to Wikileaks. Manning said he thought the American public had the right to know what its government was doing. He said that the treatment of gay men and lesbians in the armed forces was execrable. He said that he was doing a service to all of us.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and held in indefinite detention (one of the new laws passed by President Obama), under maximum security, in solitary confinement and was not arraigned until February 2012. So much for due process. He likely won’t be brought to trial until February 2013.

The documents Manning is alleged to have leaked have been published by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian. Information culled from them has been broadcast on every major news network as well as PBS.

Yet Manning is still in prison.

Some may not see the link between Manning’s case as a gay soldier and free speech, but it’s the essence of free speech. Don’t we have a right to know what our government is doing? Daniel Ellsberg (who has spoken out in support of Manning) certainly thought so when he published the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Manning wasn’t a writer, he was an interpreter, but the concept is certainly the same. Free speech is the foundation for transparency, be it political or social. Silencing critics of any administration takes us to that first step that Justice Stewart illumined of totalitarianism. And wasn’t Manning doing what Whitman exhorted and refusing to expurgate? If the documents he allegedly passed on to Wikileaks were so damaging, then why haven’t the nation’s major newspapers been shut down for publishing them and their editors charged with treason?

Ah yes–the First Amendment. So why doesn’t it apply to Manning as well?

Censorship in all its myriad forms shadows us as a society and as individuals, but those of us in minority cultures are always at risk.

In 1993, as ACT-UP and Queer Nation protests raged in New York, PEN American Center, the nation’s foremost writer’s association, announced it was forming a committee to combat censorship of lesbian and gay writing. PEN’s concern was that such writing was increasingly subject to being banned or simply closeted. Textbooks were doing what China does with the Internet: excising key phrases. Thus flaming queers like Whitman or Truman Capote or Langston Hughes were appearing in textbooks with their sexual identities hidden from readers.

If as queers we can so easily be on the censored side of free speech, then aren’t we obligated to be vigilant about censoring speech in others–especially in our own community? We have to use the Addams/ACLU litmus and maintain a safe distance between our desire to stifle free speech we despise and actually doing it. Embracing free speech as a theory is much easier than embracing it in practice, but our role as writers demands that we swallow that bitter pill and often for the sake of our own voices.

And not without potential reward. Writers reveal. In revealing, in telling the truth about our lives, our loves, our culture, we force others to acknowledge our existence. That’s the keystone of free speech–having one’s voice heard. That’s what Rich was talking about when she decried self-censorship. Because free speech, lack of censorship, is the foundation for all change throughout history. Free speech is where revolution begins.

There are numerous places in the world where LGBT people are stifled, where LGBT writers cannot tell their stories. We think of those places as Elsewhere, just as most non-queers think of us as Other, but Elsewhere is very often Right Here. Once it was Whitman, now it’s Manning, tomorrow it could be any one of us. The threat to us is grave when Western nation after Western nation stipulates that “insults” are actionable, when someone of the international stature of Ban Ki Moon talks the same talk as a corrupt despot like Karzai, when a teacher can bully a student, when a deposed government can shoot a teenage girl in the head for speaking out, when forcing silence becomes the best way to prevent dissension that might rise to the level of violence, when discomfiting others must be avoided at all costs.

Last year a move was made to censor the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn because it was offensive to children of color reading the book in school. Yet the very context of that word–in all its offense–is integral to the time in which that book was written. Excising it is literally the same as rewriting history.


We cannot force people to like what we say or write. We cannot revise and silence and quell the world into global agreeable submission. We cannot–and must not–presume that our speech is free while that of others, not so much.


We need to back off the political correctness. We need to stop confusing speaking out with bullying, political and social satire for assault. We need to accept that Whitman was right–that expurgation is the worst blasphemy. We need to broaden the limits of free speech, not further confine it.


With writing comes responsibility. Rushdie, who may know more about what it means than almost anyone alive except Malala, explains it succinctly, colloquially, honestly and in no way hyperbolically: “Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”


We need to back off the political correctness. We need to stop confusing speaking out with bullying, political and social satire for assault. We need to accept that Whitman was right–that expurgation is the worst blasphemy. We need to broaden the limits of free speech, not further confine it.
With writing comes responsibility. Rushdie, who may know more about what it means than almost anyone alive except Malala, explains it succinctly, colloquially, honestly and in no way hyperbolically: “Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”
Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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