Tag Archives: free speech

Worst Quote of the Week – November 8, 2019

“Just read the Transcript.  The Justice Department already ruled that the call was good.  We don’t have freedom of the press!”

– Faux-President Donald Trump, regarding his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the source of his current impeachment inquiry.

Here’s a much-needed refresher for Trump and other right-wing extremists.  The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees:

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PEN America in Dallas

Dallas author and co-founder of PEN Dallas/Fort Worth Sanderia Faye.

I’m excited to announce that a global literary and free speech organization, PEN International, has established a new chapter in Dallas, Texas.  Founded in London in 1921, PEN International has a very simple mission: preserve literature in all its forms and ensure everyone can engage in free speech and freedom of expression.  These are core elements in any truly democratic society, but they are constantly being challenged and even threatened by self-appointed guardians of writing, journalism and speech; people who seem to think they have the right and the power to determine what the rest of us can say and read.  It’s a never-ending battle and, sadly, it never will be won.  Those of us who advocate for a free press and free speech will always have to confront the oligarchical bullies who feel they – and only they – are blessed with inalienable rights to speech and literature.

Pen International felt the need to establish the Dallas / Fort Worth chapter in the wake of the fraudulent 2016 U.S. presidential election, which has given us an arrogant, foul-mouthed, womanizing, reality TV star in the White House.

“At a time of exceptional threats to free expression and open discourse, our chapters will bring years of mobilization, activism and organizing among writing communities across the country to the next level,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.  The Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, as well as others around the U.S. will be vehicles for “pushing back against the breakdown of civil discourse, the marginalization of vital voices, and encroachments on press freedom.”

This shouldn’t be a surprised to anyone familiar with U.S. politics.  I’ve noticed over the years that, any time a conservative Republican lands in the White House, free speech and freedom of the press come under attack.  They have no problems loosening gun laws and sending our military to fight stupid wars (as if there’s such a thing as a “smart” war).  But, when it comes to education, health care and even voting, conservatives suddenly feel the need to debate the matter.

Regardless of how hard we have to fight to ensure the rights to free speech and freedom of the press, we will always take up the torch of liberty and justice.

Everyone has a story and everyone needs to be heard.

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If Being Liberal Means…

Here in Texas, as well as in other predominantly conservative regions of the United States, the term “liberal” is equal to demonic.  Personally, I consider myself a political and social moderate – which, to most conservatives – still means liberal.  Anything to the slightest left of the small-minded rhetoric of right-wing, Judeo-Christian ideology is blasphemously liberal.  But, as you surely know by now, I deplore being placed in boxes to suit other people’s needs and desires.  Those who have dared to always end up with a rectal thermometer-style rebuke from me.  Their rules don’t apply to me.

But, for the past 30 years, liberals have allowed themselves to be defined by the opposition.  They’ve hidden their true sentiments about politics and social order within the lockboxes of their minds.  Outspoken liberals have been relegated to the coastal U.S. and urban America.  Thus, they are viewed as elitists and globalists; cretins who dismiss the notion of “American exceptionalism” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean).

In truth, liberal means educated and open-minded; compassionate and understanding.  I’m steadfast in my own outlook and opinions.  Overall, I’m just left of the center, which – again – means extremist, bleeding-heart, bed-wetting liberal to the right-wingers.  They can call me whatever name they wish, if it makes them feel empowered in their MINI Cooper of a mind.  I’ve endured worst name-calling grade school.

But, if being liberal means…

  • I believe true freedom begins with free speech and the right to vote and not with a gun.
  • I believe the United States was founded on religious freedom and separation of church and state and not Judeo-Christian beliefs.
  • I don’t believe White males have all the answers.
  • Europe is not the foundation of civilization.
  • I read more than the Christian Bible and a TV guide.
  • Men and women possess different attributes, but are still equal
  • The human race is really the only race on Earth.
  • There is life beyond this planet.
  • Industrial enterprises don’t have the right to profitably pollute the environment.
  • Queer people aren’t diabolically dangerous.

…then you can call me a liberal.  I call myself a human being with my own thoughts and opinions.  And I don’t have to run any of these by other folks, just to get their approval.

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Banned Books Week 2018

Many social movements begin with the simplest of acts.  In the fall of 1975, a group of parents called Parents of New York United complained to a local school board that school policies on library books were too “permissive.”  Among the offensive tomes were Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Langston Hughes’ “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers,” which, the parents moaned, were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”  In response, the school district removed the books in February of 1976.  But a senior high school student, Steven Pico, and four classmates challenged the board’s decision; claiming the books were removed simply because “passages in the books offended [the group’s] social, political, and moral tastes and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.”  Other libraries and free speech organizations filed briefs on the students’ behalf, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 as Island Trees School District v. Pico.

While many parents surely were upset that a group of high school kids had the audacity to circumvent their authority, the more significant issue was the school board’s actions.  And, on a grander scale, who has the right to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable?

As the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once declared, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Shortly after the SCOTUS reversal of the aforementioned school board’s decision, “Banned Books Week” was founded.  Since then it has grown into an international event with the goal of ensuring that true freedom begins with our ability and the right to read and see pretty much whatever we want.  There’s a reason, after all, why the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is first.

Like any legitimate scribe, I strongly support the right to free speech and free expression.  We in these democratic societies don’t often appreciate the importance of it.  But speak with anyone who grew up in a totalitarian state – where people are told what to read and how to think – and you’ll realize the value of it.

Sadly this battle will never be won.  We will ALWAYS have to combat those who feel that, since they’re offended by something, no else should have access to it either.  In the current chaos of extreme political correctness and assaults on the media by a deranged American president, none of us should have to tolerate the narrow-minded choices of others.

Keep writing and keep fighting!

Banned Books Week runs this year from September 23 – 29.

Frequently Challenged Books

Ten Most Challenged Books Lists

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Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2015

PEN_International_-_Day_of_the_Imprisoned_Writer

“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action – though often trivial in isolation – are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

George Orwell

 

Today is the 34th Annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, sponsored by PEN International.

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National Banned Books Week 2015

Old Covered Books on Table HD Wallpaper

Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.

This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?

One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.

Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.

The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.

For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.

Banned Books Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

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Drawing Lines

Masked-gunmen-stormed-the-headquarters-of-the-weekly-Charlie-Hebdo-in-Paris

In March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks prepared to take a stage in London, when lead singer Natalie Maines declared that she and her bandmates were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” She was referring to George W. Bush (who was actually born in Connecticut), and the U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq. In a sense, Maines was joking, but within hours, her comment thrust the group into the most unfavorable of positions. Country music fans across the U.S. demanded their local radio stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks music, and the group became the subject of hate mail and death threats. Shortly afterwards, ABC correspondent Diane Sawyer interviewed the group, during which she repeatedly asked Maines why said something so disparaging about the president of the United States. In all my years of watching politics and paying attention to how our elected officials interact with the news media, I’d never seen so much antagonism launched at one individual over a simple comment.

For one thing I am embarrassed that Bush claims he’s from Texas. I remain embarrassed that this state put him in the governor’s mansion twice and helped to place him in the White House twice. Bush is one of the worse presidents the U.S. has ever produced. I know plenty of people who would disagree with me, and we could argue about it for days. But one thing is certain: we all know we have the right to feel that way and we certainly hold the right to express our sentiments about the matter. After all, Maines didn’t curse; nor did she call Bush an idiot or a mass murderer. She didn’t threaten his life. She just opened her “big mouth again,” as she later stated, and said something. The trio eventually got their careers back on track, but I don’t think the band has fully recovered in terms of popularity.

I thought about the fiasco surrounding Maines’ comment, when the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo exploded the other day. Three Islamic fundamentalists, apparently angry that the long-running satirical French magazine had the audacity – yet again – to insult their religion and the prophet Mohammed, stormed into the building and gunned down 11 staff members. They’d also gunned a Parisian police officer – a Muslim – outside the building. One of the men turned himself into authorities immediate, while the other two fled and – as of this writing – have been killed. The tragedy reminded many of the 2005 publication of a cartoon of Mohammed in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and the vitriolic response from many in the Muslim world.

First of all, it is an offense to Islam to publicize any delineation of Mohammed; unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, which is virtually idolatrous with its many renditions of Jesus, Mary and their gallery of saints. Second of all, I don’t care. If anything, Muslims should be upset by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.; the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings; or the July 7, 2005 London train bombings. I imagine most were. I’m not one to be judgmental, but I am a strong supporter of free speech. So were the folks at Charlie Hebdo. And now, most of them are dead.

It’s a tricky thing – free speech. Just about everyone I know has expressed their strong support for it. It’s a critical element of any truly democratic and civilized society. But, as with all other freedoms, it’s cumbersome when you confront the words of those who are your ideological opposites; people who say things you find offensive, even vulgar. Free speech (and its ideological cousins, freedom of expression and freedom of religion) was at the center of the push to legalize pornography in the U.S. in the early 1970s. In the spring of 1977, it was a key component of the right a group of neo-Nazis proclaimed when they petitioned to march down the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a community with a large Jewish population. The Westboro Baptist Church relied solely on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protest at the funerals of deceased military personnel, claiming the latter died for a country that supports abortion, homosexuality and other perceived evils. Their case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where they won. It’s not okay to call someone a murderer, but it’s apparently okay – according to the decision – to shout, ‘Thank God for IEDs.’

This 2007 cartoon by “Mr. Fish” upset plenty of people.  I still think it’s funny and truthful.

This 2007 cartoon by “Mr. Fish” upset plenty of people. I still think it’s funny and truthful.

Where should that line be drawn? Or should there even be a line?

In February of 2008, my then-ISP, AOL, published a story on how, in 1504, Christopher Columbus allegedly deceived Jamaica’s indigenous Taino Indians into believing the gods were unhappy with their treatment of him and his stranded crew and would cause the moon to turn blood red. Columbus apparently knew of an upcoming lunar eclipse on February 29 of that year. When it did occur, the Taino supposedly became terrified and were convinced Columbus was some kind of deity. There are countless stories like that about early interactions between Indigenous Americans and Europeans. I had never heard of that particular story until I saw it on AOL in 2008. Then I saw something else. Someone had commented that, despite everything “no one has suffered like the Jewish people.” What the hell?! I thought. Where did that shit come from?! It was like commenting how much you like glazed doughnuts in an article about refurbishing your dining room. I quickly responded with a profanity-laced diatribe, pointing out that Jews haven’t endured one fraction of the suffering in the Western Hemisphere that Indians and the African slaves brought over to replace them have. I was careful to mention ‘in the Western Hemisphere.’ Apparently either that original commenter or some other fool got their little feelings hurt and reported me to AOL. AOL then deleted the comment and put me on “probation,” which meant preventing me from commenting on anything on their site for a while. Gosh, can you imagine how mortified I was? When I called AOL tech support in India (the land where Columbus thought he’d landed), a representative couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me who had reported me. I noted that, here in the U.S., foul language fell under the regimen of free speech. After all, I didn’t make a bomb or death threat against anyone. I didn’t accuse anyone of being a pedophile or arsonist. I just called some Jewish guy a dumb fuck, which he was, because of what he said. The tech rep refuted my claim and said she could do nothing about it. Eventually they let me off probation. God, I was so relieved! I wouldn’t have been able to live otherwise.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo always pushed the boundaries of personal tastes. Their efforts seemed destined to offend anyone and everyone. It’s curious, though, that France finds itself in this situation over a cartoon. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2004 and 2011, French law enforcement fine 594 Muslim women for wearing the niqab. Yet, in 2008, legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot went on trial for the fifth time because she’d insulted Muslims. She had said that Muslims were “destroying our country.” A devout animal rights activist, Bardot had gotten into trouble previously for disparaging the Muslim custom of slaughtering goats during the Eid al-Adha festival. She was literally dragged into court over these matters. Seriously? In freedom-loving France, it seems political correctness is meted out with a vengeance.

Again, I ask where is that line between free speech and common decency supposed to fall? Whose free speech? And whose decency? It’s a never-ending debate.

Mr. Fish.

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