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Essay/Term paper: Censorship and the first amendment: the american citizen's right to free speech

Essay, term paper, research paper:  American History

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Censorship and the First Amendment: The American Citizen's Right to Free Speech

Are we protected from censorship under the First Amendment? In other
words do individuals or groups have the right or the power to examine material
and remove or prohibit anything they consider objectionable? This argument has
been progressing for centuries, in fact the first notable case was against John
Peter Zenger, in 1743. Zenger was an editor of a New York colonial newspaper
that often published articles critical of the colonial governor. He
successfully argued that publishing the truth should be a defense and thus
defied the conventional wisdom and ended colonial intrusion into freedom of the
press (Harer 21). Since that case, the progression through time has expanded
matters to the complicated issues we see today. The founders of the United
States government tried to protect this liberty by assuring a free press, to
gather and publish information without being under control or power of another,
in the First Amendment to the Constitution. So why do we need to be concerned
if we, as citizens, have been properly protected under the constitution? Our
concerns occur, on account of special interest groups that are fighting to
change the freedom of expression, the right to freely represent individual
thoughts, feelings, and views, in order to protect their families as well as
others. These groups, religious or otherwise, believe that publishing
unorthodox material is an abuse of free expression under the First Amendment.
As we will come to find, our Supreme Court system plays an exceedingly important
role in the subject of free speech and expression. As well as, understanding
that the court system is the nucleus of the construing our First Amendment
First we must focus on the motivation and foundations behind these
individuals attempting to challenge the right to free speech. There are various
reasons given for censorship: in a classroom or library they may restrict or ban
a book or other learning resource because it includes social, political, or
religious views believed to be inappropriate or threatening. A movie or
television program may be considered violent, or obscene because of nudity or
indecent behavior. A song or speech may contain language thought to be vulgar,
or ideas and values that some consider objectionable. Furthermore, a group may
edit or withhold a newspaper story from publication because they may judge it as
a threat to national security. All though these examples are valid motivations
for censorship, initiating these steps would unveil a censorship disaster. It
is my view that this action would cause a national uprise of interests groups,
as well as the individual, demanding that every division of published
information be censored.
We must identify exactly who these individuals are that want these items
censored. Looking at all levels of American citizens, some are legislators on a
local, state, and even federal level. Others are members of boards or
committees, organized to review books, films, or other forms of communication on
behalf of a community. Occasionally the censors are teachers, librarians, or
school administrators, who determine that a book or a classroom item may not be
suitable for the students. Often censors are parents, members of religious
groups, or just citizens who are concerned about the presence of indecent or
improper material in their schools, libraries, theaters, book stores, television,
and else where in the community. These individuals are concerned with indecent
or improper material in their communities.
Shifting to the opposite view on this topic, there are those individuals
that oppose the power to censor. There are members of society that believe in
the freedom to speak publicly and to publish. This is a basic belief in the
freedom of expression and is to be protected by the First Amendment to the
Constitution. On the eve of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, the first
wave of a nationwide survey, comprising more than 1,500 citizens was conducted.
Through this survey it was found that Americans rate free speech as their second
most precious First Amendment right and regard a free press highly in the
abstract (Wyatt 87). This amendment states: Congress shall make no laws
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there
of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of people
peaceably to assemble, and petition the government for a redress of grievances
(Lowi A24). Although there are strong cases made for and against censorship,
the rising trend calling for censorship can threaten our basic rights to free
expression and the right to be informed. At the center of the debate is the
First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantee's our right to read, speak,
write, and communicate freely. This right cannot be interfered with by the
government at the state or federal level. However, the First Amendment does not
protect some forms of expression including libel and slander, false advertising,
obscenity, and inciting a riot (Harer 13). In our age, there is an unlimited
amount of information available through a diverse representation of media:
television, radio, films, newspapers, telephones, computers, magazines, books,
and so on. Opposed to other countries, within the world, we are advanced both
politically and technically. With our ability to learn and to communicate with
one another, this will only make the complex issue of censorship grow.
We should consider ourselves lucky by world standards, in many countries
the freedom of expression is extremely limited, or sometimes not permitted at
all. In these societies, the government censors views that are not in line
with their policies, controlling controversial opinions on television, in
newspapers, and even in public or private meetings. Many consider the First
Amendment to be our most precious constitutional freedom. These same members of
society: librarians, teachers, legislators, and students believe in following
the tradition of our First Amendment. This tradition allows us the freedom to
read, write, speak, and therefore to learn. Our basic freedom is essential to a
progressing society. It would be impossible ever to agree upon what should and
should not be censored, by whose standards should we set these rules?
A thorough discussion of freedom of speech would begin with the question
whether this freedom should be legally protected. However, let us begin where
the court begins, with the proposition that the freedom is constitutionally
guaranteed and is fundamental to the American political system (Canavan 2). The
Supreme court has heard various cases pertaining to the freedom of speech,
freedom of the press, issues of libel and slander, national security and
obscenity. This started in 1787, Thomas Jefferson saw the dangers of a state
supported or sanctioned religion and wanted to place a wall of separation
between church and state (Hentoff 345). The chief function of the guarantee,
then, in the eyes of the court, is to serve the political needs of an open and
democratic society. "The core value of the Free Speech Clause of the First
Amendment," the court has said, is "the public interest in having free and
unhindered debate on matters of public importance" (Canavan 3). Thus, it is our
right to evaluate items that, as a citizen, we feel as a matter of importance
and speak publicly, publish, or express these feelings in any matter we deem
necessary. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Supreme Court to
interpret the constitution and the Bill of Rights, to make sure that each
citizen stays within the constitution and does not infringe upon the rights of
others. Their interpretation will set the standards in which this nation must
I assert that everyone has a right to self opinion, but imposing your
beliefs on others is not a solution, by any means. The following quotation, by
John Carney Jr., from his speech "Theoretical Value in Teaching Freedom of
Speech," sums up his ideas on where the future of free speech stands. He brings
out the concept of societies control over the fate of free speech. Carney opens
our eyes to the thought of actually losing our right to free speech. He helps
us understand
5 that the loss of our right to free speech and
expression would be devastating.

I don't think freedom of speech is being destroyed or has been
destroyed, by any well planned conspiracy by any particular segment
of our society; political, governmental, economical, educational, or
what have you. I think freedom of speech is
rotting to death. And
it has been for a long time...A lot of people, including many who
should know better, don't really even begin to understand the
concept as it relates to our form of government, and therefore, have
no commitment to it... Any attempt is impossible without free
speech. It's tough enough with it, but impossible without it...
Perhaps the overriding need for teaching freedom of speech is
because the people don't believe it any more (Carney).

In looking back at this issue, we realize that the level of complexity
has escalated since the first case encountered in 1743, to todays unbelievable
level. Consider the special interest groups, that challenge the right to free
expression, with those that secure this right to their everyday beliefs as free
citizens in America. Every item that is censored, or even not censored, affects
all citizens within the collective community. Each group holds a strong
conviction to their purpose, but they do not take into account the basic issue
of interpretation of the First Amendment, in order to protect their position.
Taking into consideration those countries that essentially have no say in their
rights, we can imagine how trivial this argument might be. We must also realize
that as our forefathers intended, our countries basic principles derive from
this amendment. Therefore, we must settle for the judgement of the Supreme
Court on this concern. Accepting the Supreme Court interpretations as our own,
thus achieving a balanced society. Our countries founding documents,
specifically the First Amendment, were drafted to protect the rights of all
American citizens, to both question and criticize our government, if they
desired to. I believe our founding fathers theorized that with so many people
speaking out, the truth would always emerge, and our country would grow to be
fair and free.

Works Cited

Carney, John Jr., "Theoretical Value in Teaching Freedom of Speech." Speech
Association of the Eastern States. New York, 10 March 1973.

Harer, John B. Intellectual Freedom: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-
CLIO, 1992. 21.

---. Intellectual Freedom: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992.

Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee: How the American Left and
Right Relent- lessly Censor Each Other. New York: Harper Collins
Publisher, 1992. 345

Wyatt, Robert O. Free Expression and the American Public: A Survey Commemorating
the 200th Anniversary of the First Amendment. Murfreesboro: Middle
Tennessee State University, 1990. 87.

---. Free Expression and the American Public: A Survey Commemorating the 200th
Anniversary of the First Amendment. Murfreesboro: Middle Tennessee State
University, 1990. 87.

United States. Natl. Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of
America: Amend- ment I. Trans. Lowi, Theodore J. American
Government: Incomplete Conquest. Illinois: Dryden press,
1976. A24


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