Thursday, June 19, 2008

First Amendment Watch: James Joyce's Ulysses Once Again Under Gun

Most people know something of the story of Ulysses's reception, the 1922 novel by James Joyce, judged by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. U.S., British, and Irish officials promptly called for the novel to be banned, owing to its language, judged by those officials to be unacceptable for public consumption. Fortunately for the world, a real judge, Federal Judge John M. Woolsey, Jr. in New York City, ruled in 1933 that banning the novel for alleged obscenity would be inconsistent with the First Amendment.

Ironically, the Federal Communications Commission was created a mere year later. Although the Federal Communications Act of 1934 specifically said the FCC was not to engage in censorship, that same act also had contradictory language about keeping obscene and "indecent" language off of the public airways.

Unsurprisingly, the FCC has given more emphasis to the second (fining broadcasters for obscene and/or indecent language on their airways) than to the first (prohibition of censorship). In the past few years, in fact, Congress has authorized the FCC to increase its fines to millions of dollars for television or radio stations that digress from the FCC's unstated puritanical standards.

WBAI radio was a celebrated victim, not of FCC fines, but of an FCC "censure" (condemnation) back in the 1970s. WBAI's wrongdoing back then was broadcasting comedian George Carlin's "seven dirty words" routine. The ACLU and WBAI objected to the FCC censure, took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost.

And WBAI is now in the news again. This past Monday, June 16, WBAI Radio and Symphony Space, for the first time since 1981, decided to not do a joint presentation of their "Bloomsday" celebration - readings of some of the best of James Joyce. The reason for this decision, according to a New York Times article, was "apprehension about obscenity and government regulation" - meaning, some people at WBAI were apparently worried about the millions of dollars of FCC fines that could well have come its way.

And thus we slip ever more into a state much like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The FCC, of course, still does not explicitly censor - it doesn't need to. Intimidation by huge fines has the same chilling effect.

Judge Woolsey's brave and perceptive decision in 1933 could not have foreseen an unconstitutional FCC which would be created just a year later, and by the 21st century would be exerting ever greater control over what Americans can see and hear.

But that's our reality. And unless we do something about this governmental agency gone out of control, we'll lose a lot more than James Joyce's prose, as wonderful as it is. For what the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany show is that, what starts out as censorship of "obscenity" in short order moves into censorship of political views and everything else in society.

See also my 2005 Keynote Address delivered at Fordham University: The Flouting of the First Amendment
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