Tuesday, May 29, 2007

In Praise of John Peter Zenger

The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.

Tommy Smothers*

This fall, I will be teaching English 101 again. For the past several semesters, I have concentrated on teaching English 102, which focuses on argument, logic and rhetoric. English 101 is by far the most popular course at my community college in the fall. Every student must take (and pass) 2 semesters of English above basic writing. So freshmen sign up for English 101 in droves. Hence my switch.

Since Eng 101 concentrates on introduction to various types of writing, that gives me some latitude and I have a little fun with some of the assignments. Each semester, I ask students about various current events, just to gauge their awareness of the larger world. Sadly but not surprisingly, their knowledge is usually somewhat limited. So, I craft an assignment that divides the class up into groups and assign them to watch a half hour evening news show on the national networks. With several teams, we cover ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and PBS. They are to look at content, balance between news and advertisements, visual approach, bias, and learn something about the anchors for each news show. Then they report to the class.

Just before I give this assignment, I throw in a little “extra credit” question: who knows who
John Peter Zenger is? Usually no one knows, but sometimes a student does. The question gives me the occasion to launch into an impassioned speech on the value of freedom of speech and a free press and how this concept is one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

You see, even though Zenger’s trial occurred in 1735 it is widely regarded as laying the foundation for freedom of speech in this country. Why, you might ask, am I thinking about freedom of speech.

Actually, two reasons. First, we have just passed Memorial Day where the news coverage invariably featured someone talking before the cameras about how the service people we honor with that day served and sometimes died to preserve our freedoms. I suspect we rarely think about the meaning of those freedoms. And second, this weekend I took part in a somewhat light-hearted conversation about freedom of speech. We were filling out an on-line questionnaire to determine where you line up politically. One of the questions went something like “do you favor government censorship?” My response was a vehement NO! I am pretty much opposed to any type of censorship.

Freedom of speech in the United States derives from the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. The actual language is—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This amendment captures four basic freedoms: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; the right to assemble; and the right to petition the Government for redress of grievances. If you were to look at Norman Rockwell’s famous illustration of Freedoms—Ours to Fight For—you would see an illustration of FDR’s reworking of the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and from fear. Check
here to see it.

One need not read far in the history of the Colonies to see why each of these freedoms was so important. King George III just didn’t get it. He appointed as Governor of New York a man named William Cosby. Cosby soon demonstrated his veniality, earning the dislike of many. When an opposition leader published a newspaper criticizing Cosby, an order went out to arrest the publisher—John Peter Zenger. (This recounting is greatly truncated. You can find a much better account here.) Zenger’s defense was handled by Alexander Hamilton who basically attacked the validity of the law that would bar such publishing. A jury, which had all but been hand picked to render a guilty verdict, came back with a not guilty verdict. Zenger was freed and the foundation of freedom of speech was established here before we even became a country.

Freedom of speech is not something totalitarian or dictatorial governments cherish. New technologies have greatly expanded the ways in which freedom of expression exists. The Internet has greatly challenged those countries around the world that try to limit freedom of expression. China began to experience an Internet explosion, and with it new-found access to information and free expression. When China sought to block searches on Google within the country, Google
agreed to limitations that really amount to censorship. And just this week, President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela shut down an opposition television network.

Is there no limitation, you might ask? Well, many Supreme Court rulings have followed over the centuries after the Zenger trial. Here is a fascinating overview of the approaches to
free speech. One famous judgment included in a Supreme Court ruling is that we do not have the right to yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater. Another famous statement, when the Court was considering whether or not pornography was covered, was in response to the need for a definition of pornography—“I know it when I see it.”

The next time you hear someone criticize freedom of speech—however distasteful some of the uses of it might be—remember, free speech is a foundation value for the U.S.

* I am old enough to remember CBS’ decision to censor the Smothers’ Brothers and subsequent cancellation of their very popular show.


Anvilcloud said...

Sounds like the student will learn a lot with you as their guide.

Anvilcloud said...

So, after making the last comment and going on to another blog, I thought to come back and ask if owner-approved comments were a form of censorship. I guess I do it too because, although I don't pre-approve, I wouldn't be above deleting a comment that I didn't like. Is this censorship that we (you and I) do (re comments) or something else. What do you think?

KGMom said...

AC--excellent question. (Makes me think of being in class when a student asks a question--I have to caution myself not to say "good question" as that implies that another student's question isn't good.)

Anyway, to respond: I use blog owner moderation as a way to catch the outright spam that goes on. I have NEVER not published a comment from any "genuine" reader. I would call something spam if a reader says--here's a product you might like to try.

I had best amend my NEVER statement--there was one comment I did not allow. I had written about Zimbabwe's birthday, and a reader somewhere in the UK who was clearly a former Rhodie commented in appalling language about President Mugabe. Now, I happen to think Mugabe is a disaster--but I would never write about him using "sailors" language. So I disallowed that comment. However, before I did that, I went to the commenter's profile, read some of his own writings, and finally decided he was not a genuine reader but someone with a one-time axe to grind.

KGMom said...

P.S. on my comment above--I think I have just broken my own rule of no censorship ever.
Hmmmm--caught in a quandary.

KGMom said...

P. P. S.
I think my blog moderation may be my way of "not listening." That writer can fire away to his heart's content on his blog site--I just don't have to listen, nor do I have to lend him my blog site for him to continue to spill his invective.
On the spam issue--after I wrote about My Charmed Childhood, I got spam from a couple of sites offering me boarding school information! Obviously, there are Internet trolling programs that go looking for key words, then fire off emails or comments offering their products. OK, fine, but use your own space to pitch your product.

Pam said...

I am against all censorship, also, but go with the premise that although anyone can say whatever they want, I have the right to not listen to that which I feel is rude, abhorent or degrading. And I'm not inclined to listen to those who will not listen. Opinions and ideas are a fair swap.

I loved the Smothers Brothers, BTW, thought they were "right on."

Climenheise said...

I also reject all censorship; but I must admit that the flood of "stuff" that we put up with tests my resolution. What do we do with the extent to which pornography hs invaded the web, for example? One of my friends has done some research on the extent of the problem, noting that the business is bigger than all of the professional sports in North America combined. Evidently the cehnsorship of "not listening" is insufficient. But anything imposed by the government is even worse: witness what is happening now in Zimbabwe.

Elaine Cougler Author said...

Wow! Lots to think about both in your blog and in the comments you have elicited. This is blogging at its best, no matter which side of the censorship question you come down on.
Well done!

Cathy said...

Excellent, Donna and I love the exchange AC generated about comment approval. I think you made your case very well. You don't have to listen.

Like Climenheise, I worry about all the un-filtered garbage saturating the internet. Parents really have a tougher job today than when I raised my son decades ago. And I think I mentioned my concerns previously about the Virginia Tech killer getting so much coverage.

I do agree, though. A free people must be able to express themselves without fear of harassment.

Oh! Thanks for the history lesson. I'd missed this Zenger story. (Or my old brain has lost the memory - either way - I'm grateful :0)

Mary said...

Good lesson, Donna. I recently read a post about censorship and the author's dislike for it when it is driven by a country rule. I worry about the children, though, as information is so readily available, in any form. I don't agree with censorship on a large scale. It should be left up to the individual to block unwanted information, i.e. comments on a blog post.

I would love to sit in your classroom. I'd learn a lot from you!

And, I do remember the Smothers' Brothers :o)

Climenheise said...

I also enjoyed the history lesson, Donna; although I think you are unfair to George III. So far as they were concerned, we weren't that important: sort of the way that most Americans think of Canada today!

We think sometimes that we invented freedom of speech. The English haven't done so badly. I'm told (but can't verify) that "brown shirts" -- Nazi sympathizers -- kept up their vocal support of fascism during World War 2, speaking out at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. Of course they were repulsive, but I wonder if we have always accorded the same freedom to those who oppose what we believe at the deepest levels.

Today England is less sure that you should be able to speak openly. But they've done at least as well as we have.

KGMom said...

To all--thanks for the spirited discussion. Keep it going as long as you wish.

The 1st amendment in the Bill of Rights really sets things up in 2 directions: freedom of press & freedom of speech. Where the UK differs is that they do NOT claim to have freedom of press and can squelch stories they don't want printed. But the UK has a grand tradition of free speech--witness Hyde Park.

Where many of us probably wish censorship could be enforced would be in relation to things like pornography on the Internet. I suspect we don't want our press censored.

In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that some restraints can be placed in relation to the Internet. For example, public libraries are required to place filters on computers so children do not inadvertently come across pornography.

Perhaps the strongest reason I would offer as my reason for opposing censorship is WHO gets to decide. Darylk (Climenheise) referenced the Nazis--well, they were masters at manipulating the press and expression for their own gain, but they censored art. So, the paintings they banished, they also stole for themselves. I might "trust" some people to do the censoring, but there are others I would never trust. So, I come down on the no censorship side.

Anonymous said...

I love all this talk here - you have stirred us all up Donna!! You are so good at this. I believe that there is so much underground censorship going on that we do not know about. Misleading stories are even put out to put us off track of the real story. In the U.S. you are now heading into a time of greater censorship perhaps due to homeland security issues. Lots of changes to do with censorship of a different kind than we knew before.

KGMom said...

Oops on the name--Daryl (with no K at the end) = Climenheise.

Ocean--thanks for joining in. And you raise a most important issue--that of underground censorship. I am sure some stories get killed before they ever get published because someone somewhere puts the pressure on.

And let's not forget our responsibilitiy. I sometimes wonder what good free speech does for us if we are more consumed with Paris Hilton (or even who wins American Idol--sorry, Mary) than we are with the thousands suffering in Darfur.

I frequently listen to BBC News and I am astounded with stories that get no mention in the U.S. press. A while back, when things were really spiralling down in Zimbabwe, I fired off letters to CNN, NBC, ABC, and CBS that they should do some coverage on Zimbabwe. Soon after that, CNN began to cover it more; occasionally the other networks have grudgingly done an occasional piece.

And don't even get me started on local "news." No wonder so many people say they don't watch it. In fact, as I write this, I have on our local Fox station (they do "early" evening news). They just did a story on some guy in England who ate a dead dog to protest the Royal Family. Now, I ask you--what earthly good does such a story do? I would not censor such a story, but I would ask what that story contributes to our understanding or to greater good in the world. Oh well--time to stop ranting.

Pam said...

Is the problem with the news all in the broadcaster's ball park? They are more concerned about ratings than what's relevant, which makes me more worried about what people seem to want to watch.

KGMom said...

Pam--one of the sections in the reader text I use in Eng 101 is called NEWS AS ENTERTAINMENT. I think that is part of the problem. Too much of the media have ceased to view news as NEWS and see it instead as entertainment. They also see it as having to contribute to "the bottom line" so ratings become important. Can't sell advertising without good ratings, so what gets covered is changed to draw more advertiserd. Let's be realistic--it is hard to sell toothpaste or beer or whatever when you keep seeing bloated starving babies in Africa. So U.S. news tends to skip that coverage.

So, Pam, I agree--we viewers are also to blame.

Cathy said...

Then - if we get what we want - and we want trash - what hope is there!? ARGHHHH! How can we have an informed citizenry when we're covering a man eating a dead dog in protest?

Then I back into the question again about censorship which we all agree is bad. I guess if we 'mandated' a certain amount of serious coverage - people would just tune into the garbage being offered on the next channel. ARGHHHH!

I'm going out to pull weeds - THOSE I have some hope of taming . . .