"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Flouting of the First Amendment - transcript of my June 2005 Keynote Address

The following is a more-or-less verbatim transcript ("uh"s taken out, "so"s left in) of my June 2005 Keynote Address delivered at Fordham University's Media Ecology Association Convention. I'm writing a book with the same title, and will be talking about these issues at the Westport County Playhouse on August 5, 2007. A quote from the 2005 Keynote - "what begins as a seemingly innocent campaign against indecency ... always segues in short order into political censorship" - appears on the May 8 page of the 2007 First Amendment Calendar. A slightly refined version of this talk was published in Explorations in Media Ecology (2006, vol 5, no 3, pp. 199-210). As as a special treat for InfiniteRegress.tv readers, I've included the actual clip of Brent Bozell vs. me debating the First Amendment on CNBC television that I mention in the Keynote... And you can see a video of my entire speech at the end of this transcript.

The Flouting of the First Amendment

Keynote address given by Paul Levinson
at the Sixth Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association,
Fordham University, New York City, June 23, 2005

Introduction by John Hollwitz, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Fordham University:

Why is it that I’m so pleased at being able to introduce Dr. Paul Levinson for tonight’s keynote address, a talk on the flouting of the First Amendment, an issue of considerable moment in our public lives in the United States and indeed the world? The great pleasure I take in this opportunity comes from four or five different things: First, Dr. Levinson is a teacher of distinction at Fordham and the head of our largest undergraduate unit, the chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies. Dr. Levinson has indeed crossed to the “dark side” and entered the world of administration with great integrity, vision, and leadership.

My pleasure also comes from the fact that Dr. Levinson is a scholar of renown. His books include Cellphone: The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium; Realspace; Digital McLuhan; and The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. It’s true, too, that his work has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and six other languages, and it’s true that he’s a renown author of fiction, including among his works The Silk Code; Borrowed Tides; The Consciousness Plague; and The Pixel Eye. It’s true that he appears regularly on Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, CBC, NPR, the BBC. He is regularly quoted in the nation’s leading newspapers, and -- in a moment which is preserved in Fordham lore and more importantly on digital media in Fordham’s library -- may have been the only person in the country to have gotten the last word and the last laugh on the “O’Reilly Factor” in one of its most memorable episodes. All of these contribute to my great pleasure in introducing Dr. Levinson to you this evening.

But they’re not the entire reason I’m happy and proud. I must reveal to you that in addition to all of these other accomplishments, Dr. Levinson is a genuine rock ‘n’ roll celebrity. You perhaps doubt me when I say this, but I happen to have the proof -- one of the proofs -- one of his CDs, one that he produced himself back in the 1970s. He has several CDs of some note, some of which have been reissued and have gained him and Fordham University some renown for accomplishment on yet another front. Not content with being a teacher of distinction, a performer, a scholar, a gifted artist, an intellectual of the first order, Paul Levinson is for many of us an inspiration and a friend, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce him to you and you to him this evening. Paul….

Paul Levinson:
Well, thank you, John. And apropos of your comment about the dark side, I knew there was still good in you someplace. Well, I was driving down to the convention today and I realized I was driving about 62 or 63 miles an hour on the West Side Drive, and as some of you may know the speed limit there is 50 miles an hour, so I hope there are no police officers in the audience. Actually it’s a good thing that there weren’t any police officers in cars or on motorcycles or anywhere near where I was this afternoon because if they had seen me driving even a few miles too fast, they could have pulled me over and given me a summons and the way traffic courts work-at least in New York City-I think you’re guilty until proven innocent.

But you might be wondering what this has to do with the First Amendment. Well, it struck me as an interesting irony that a person who drives just a few miles over the posted speed limit can be found guilty and pay a hefty fine, but our government is systematically violating the supreme law of the land -- which is what our Constitution is -- when the FCC, for example, fines television networks and radio stations over seven million dollars, which it did last year. Even though the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press.” It strikes me as ironic that the federal government can and does do that with impunity all the time, and that’s what I want to explore with you in a little more detail this evening.

If I had a couple of months we could explore other ways in which our government systematically defies the law of the land. For example, there’s a provision in the Constitution that governs declarations of war and yet World War II was the last time our country went to war with a Declaration of War by a joint session of Congress as called for in the Constitution. Or I could talk to you about double jeopardy, which is not permitted in the Constitution and yet people who are found not guilty in the criminal court are often retried in civil court. And it doesn’t matter that I think O.J. is one of those because it doesn’t matter if the people are guilty or innocent. I think that what matters is that the government is violating the law.

But tonight let’s just look at the First Amendment, and let’s begin on Page One in our country. This would be back in the 1780s, a few years after the successful revolution. There were two schools of thought back then about what the relationship between government and what we would today call media -- what was then just called the press -- should be. One school of thought was presented by John Adams. I think Neil Postman would have liked John Adams. I don’t know if in fact he did; I never talked to him about that. But John Adams was not a fan of the media. In fact John Adams was no fan of people. He distrusted people. The time he spent in France traumatized him and led him to believe that if people are unchecked, if people are not controlled, then their animal instincts will come to the fore and what happened in France with blood running in the streets and heads rolling and all those terrible things might happen right here in the United States.

So John Adams wanted the press to support a strong central government. The other point of view was one that Thomas Jefferson presented. This was a point of view that actually didn’t originate with Jefferson. John Milton a few years before had said that truth and falsity should battle it out in the public arena and let the people decide which is the better presentation, and according to Jefferson and his colleagues James Monroe and James Madison, what you therefore needed was a strong press that was a watchdog on the central government. Because if you have a central government without a press, Jefferson was afraid that that government would actually do the same bad things that Adams was concerned about in France. And so this was the debate at the dawn of the new Constitution, which was adopted in 1789. The compromise that was struck between the people who agreed with John Adams and the people who agreed with Thomas Jefferson was that it would be a strong Constitution with a strong central government, but there would be a “Bill of Rights” that would guarantee freedom of various sorts for the American people -- freedom that the government, restricted by these rights, would not be able to abridge.

There were twelve amendments that were originally proposed. Only ten were ratified. Freedom of speech and of the press was not the Tenth, the Ninth, the Eighth; it wasn’t even the Second Amendment. It was the First Amendment to the Constitution. First as in foremost, and first as in most important. This amendment protected freedom of religion, freedom of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances, and it protected freedom of speech and the press.

This amendment and the other nine amendments were ratified in 1791. In 1796 John Adams became the second President of the United States. In 1798 Congress passed the Sedition Act. This was seven years after the First Amendment had been adopted, and the Sedition Act amazingly said anyone who was critical of the government, disrespectful of the government, disrespectful of the President could be found guilty of violating this act and could be fined thousands of dollars and sentenced to years in prison. As a matter of fact, this was coupled with something called the Alien Act, which wasn’t about aliens in outer space, it was about aliens in different countries and coupled together, a person that published materials critical of the government could have been tried for treason and executed. Seven years after the adoption of the First Amendment.

To give you an idea of how bad things were then: shortly after the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, John Adams was traveling from Philadelphia, which was then the capital of the United States, back to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts. (Great name, isn’t it?) Anyway, he happened to be traveling through Newark, New Jersey, and Newark, New Jersey was pretty much then what it is now. It wasn’t exactly a teeming cultural citadel. People there liked to drink a lot; there’s nothing wrong with that. They were actually trying to be respectful of the President, and in those days when the President would pass through town, the towns would fire cannons as a sign of respect for the President. But somehow these people in Newark were a little behind the eight-ball, and John Adams had passed through town -- he was gone -- and they started firing the cannons. (Sounds like what we do in the Communication Department sometimes.) Anyway, somebody in the town mumbled, “Why are they firing the cannons now? John Adams is gone. They’re firing the cannons at his ass,” and that is a direct quote. “They’re firing the cannons at his ass.”

Well, a friend of his, a town drunkard by the name of Luther Baldwin, basically responded, “I wish they’d fire the cannons through John Adams’s ass.” Well, unfortunately for Baldwin, there were a few people standing by who were known as Federalists, that is people who supported John Adams’s party and they promptly called over some constables and had Baldwin arrested for being disrespectful and threatening of the President. I guess disrespectful because he uttered the word “ass”; threatening because of what he said about the cannonball. A few days later -- to show you how absurd things were back in 1798 -- a New York newspaper by the name of The New York Argus published an editorial. Now The New York Argus was run by Jeffersonians; they were against what John Adams was doing, so in their editorial they said, “You know this is really absurd. They arrest this drunk in Newark because he said he wanted to fire a cannonball at John Adams’s ass -- how can that possibly be considered a danger? Why, the ass of John Adams is far too disgusting a target for anyone to look at long enough to fire a cannonball at it!” And guess what? The Feds came after The New York Argus because they were being disrespectful of the President.

That’s a funny story, but nonetheless it is extremely serious because seven years after the First Amendment becomes a supreme law of the land, it is sat upon and nearly suffocated by John Adams’s ass. I’m not talking about John Adams’s literal ass. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll take The New York Argus’s word for it that that is far too disgusting a topic to even talk about. But the spoken word “ass” and the written word “ass” are what caused all the controversy -- in other words, speech and press, the very two things that Congress should make no law abridging. Thomas Jefferson was so livid when he found out about that that he told his friends he was thinking of advising Virginia and some other states to secede from the new union. This would have been a civil war sixty years earlier and it would have destroyed our country. It was really a critical moment in which the whole future of the United States depended. The whole future hinged on that ass.

And you can imagine if you think of the great people in history, people like Socrates who was sentenced to death by the Athenian democracy because he wouldn’t shut up. The world’s first democracy kills what many people consider the greatest philosopher in history simply because he talked too much. Or John Milton, for instance. I mean, if they were looking in on this, they would be hoping that something could be done to stop this insanity in the United States. But if we’re looking at eternity, there were people on the other side as well. In the twentieth century, there were people like Adolf Hitler and his Minister for Popular Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels, who got his Ph.D from the University of Heidelberg in 1922, and understood communications. Those folks would have been right there with John Adams hoping that the First Amendment was trampled and destroyed.

Jefferson, after thinking it over, decided to stay the course and in fact to run for President in the election of 1800 against John Adams, and in an interesting and fascinating event in history, Adams was not only defeated but Jefferson and Aaron Burr were pretty much neck-and-neck in the Electoral College (does that sound familiar?). It went to the House of Representatives and Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States. This saved the United States; it saved the First Amendment; and I think it saved freedom in the world.

Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of the press never had a better friend than Thomas Jefferson. In the 1770s, Jefferson made a statement that has become pretty famous. He said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And of course people have sarcastically commented, “But this was in the 1770s before Jefferson became President. How did he feel after he was in the White House?” The answer to that question is found in a letter Jefferson sent to Comte de Volney in 1802 in which Jefferson reiterated his view about the need for a strong, independent, vigorous press. He also admitted he had no illusions about the press. He knew the press publishes falsities, calumnies. They’re not much better than anything else you wrap yesterday’s fish in. But he said what a democratic society must do -- and this is crucial -- is safeguard the right of the press to print falsities because in doing that you safeguard the right of the press to print the truth.

So for the next hundred years we had a sort of golden age of freedom of the press in the United States. Andrew Jackson became President in 1828. He was a Jeffersonian. He extended democracy to what was called the “common man” in those days. Improvements in print technology led to more newspapers being printed. By the 1840s magazines were joining books and newspapers. That’s the media ecological aspect of this issue.

By the 1880s literacy in the United States was so high that it equaled for the first time the rates of literacy in the ancient city of Alexandria. That’s a pretty sobering thought, isn’t it? It took us that long to get up to where the ancient Alexandrians were. But you may know that ancient Alexandria and its library, which was reputed to have a copy of every book ever written -- I was thinking of going back there in a time machine and giving them some of my books just to make their collection complete -- was burned to the ground no fewer than three times.

So the 1880s seemed to many Americans to be a golden age for freedom of the press, and I should also mention that Abraham Lincoln, who also considered himself a Jeffersonian, with a few minor exceptions permitted the Northern press to be very critical of his conduct during the Civil War. So Lincoln favored freedom of the press. But just as the Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground, it would turn out that in the 20th century, the First Amendment while not being burned to the ground would meet very severe challenges.

So now we move on to Page Two. (Don’t worry, there are only three pages to this story.) Page Two: 1901. McKinley, President of the United States, is assassinated by some nutcase anarchist I think in the city of Buffalo. The only thing that makes sense about that is that it happened in Buffalo. Unlike Lincoln’s assassination, which was looked at by many Americans as just another last gasp of the Civil War, Americans had a hard time understanding McKinley’s assassination. Unfortunately the explanation that many people came up with is that these anarchists are being fed by the press. They’re reading all this material that’s inciting them to go on and do these horrible things. And so a distrust of the press began slowly permeating American society.

In the year 1915, a little known but very important Supreme Court decision came down in a case involving a company called Mutual Film. The justice who wrote that opinion, McKenna, a justice appointed by William Taft, said that motion pictures are not entitled to any First Amendment protections. They’re just another business. That’s almost a direct quote from that Supreme Court decision. Movies were just “a business, pure and simple.” They’re entitled to no more protection than say, a shoemaker, or today you might say a pizza place. This was very important because it established a very important distinction. It seemed to be saying that newspapers were entitled to First Amendment protections but other media were not. Unfortunately McKenna was unable to take any courses in the media ecology program, never had the benefit of Neil Postman’s education, because he was writing his opinions fifty years earlier.

But the really damaging blow to the First Amendment happened in 1919 with the “clear and present danger” decision. This involved a man named Shenck who was distributing anti-draft leaflets near a draft recruiting center during World War I. He was arrested, and the defense claimed First Amendment protection. The Supreme Court, under the influence of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., ruled 9-0 that Shenck was not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment, and that notwithstanding the First Amendment, Congress had not only a right but an obligation to prevent action which would lead to a “clear and present danger” to life, property, and they threw a couple of other things in there as well.

Ironically, Justice Holmes thought he was a champion of the First Amendment. He thought this was necessary -- to use McLuhan’s metaphor -- to throw a piece of juicy meat to the dogs that were about to beset the First Amendment. Who knows what he really thought, but he was dead wrong because what this then did was open up the floodgates. Rather than satisfying people who were against the First Amendment, it only emboldened them.

In the 1930s, the Federal Communications Act created the FCC -- the Federal Communications Commission -- and you can see right there the profound dichotomy of an already weakened First Amendment and the attempt to desperately hold onto some of it. Because in that act, it says on one hand, in one of the clauses, that the FCC has no right to and cannot censor radio, but it also says someplace else that the FCC is going to make sure there is no “obscenity” broadcast on the public airwaves. What is obscenity? No one ever defined it. In the years since, not only obscenity but “indecency” has been brought into the realm of what the FCC is supposed to regulate.

A few other highlights of the twentieth century before we get to Page Three. In the 1970s a man was riding down the Saw Mill River Parkway in Westchester with his son. His 15-year-old son. They’re listening to WBAI-FM radio. Some of you know it -- it’s still the Pacifica radio station in New York. And on the radio that instant is George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine, and I’m happy to get to bring this up because it gives me a chance to say the word “ass” again. I was thinking of subtitling the talk “the ass of John Adams through history.” But anyway, what the “seven dirty words” business is all about are words, first of all, that you can say on the air because they are words with a double entendre. You can even say them on television. You can say, “He came down the mountain on his ass” -- meaning on his donkey. But then there are certain words that I won’t mention here because who knows who might arrest me. But they’re words that are not double entendres; they’re single entendres and Carlin listed seven of them. Actually he later expanded his list to over a hundred -- very creative guy.

Anyway this man in the car is listening to this and I don’t know how much he listened to and enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, but at some point he started going ballistic because his son is sitting next to him and oh my god, this is ruining his son’s life! Now I have a 21-year-old son and based on what he was saying at fifteen, he could teach George Carlin a few words, so I don’t know where this family grew up. But anyway, the man wrote to the FCC. The FCC picked up on it and sent a letter of censure. You know those two words -- censure and censor -- have always annoyed me. They actually mean different things but are related. A “censure” is a stringent criticism, not censoring but saying you really don’t like something, and actually the FCC not only censured WBAI, they warned them: if you ever broadcast George Carlin again, this routine in particular, we may not renew your license when it comes to license renewal time. Sure sounds like censor to me. And WBAI didn’t want to take that from the FCC. They took this all the way to the Supreme Court. In those days, Jimmy Carter was President and he ordered his lawyers to support WBAI, as did the American Civil Liberties Union. By the way, if you want to get Bill O’Reilly apoplectic, just say ACLU. Just a little tidbit for devotees of the show.

But the Supreme Court at this time was not the Supreme Court of the 1950s, which was appointed in part by Eisenhower. And all the great things the Supreme Court did back then -- like Brown v. Board of Education -- were the result of a Court which was quite different from the one that was making decisions in the late 1970s. And so that Court backed the FCC in a 5-4 decision, and said the FCC has every right to regulate this.

Last point of note in the 20th century: in 1996 the Clinton administration -- or actually Congress, but Clinton signed it -- put into effect the Communications Decency Act, which actually said that if there is any material on the Internet that is at all indecent and children have any access to it, then the people who posted the information can be fined and thrown into jail for two years. Pretty similar to what the Sedition Act was trying to do two centuries earlier. But fortunately in 1798 John Adams was President and he was succeeded by Jefferson in 1800, while in 1996, Clinton was President and was succeeded by George W. Bush in 2000, who has taken the country on a path very far from Jefferson's. But again I want to emphasize: Bill Clinton was the one who signed into law the Communications Decency Act and allowed Attorney General Janet Reno to bring a person up on charges under it. So this is not a Republican versus Democrat issue. They’re both equal opportunity abusers of the First Amendment.

However, the one good thing -- the little bright light -- about this episode is that the Supreme Court when it heard the case did decide by a narrow margin that written material on the Net was close enough to the press that they couldn’t in good conscience find the Communications Decency Act constitutional. So freedom in this case had just a temporary setback. The enemies of the First Amendment had misunderstood the media. They didn’t realize and were in fact surprised that the Supreme Court would find that the Internet is something like a press.

Actually, I had a debate with Neil Postman almost two decades ago about what a computer was. Neil thought the computer was just another kind of television. My point of view was that it was really just another kind of book, and I think we were both right, but fortunately the Supreme Court took the book analogy as something to base their decision on.

Now we’re up to Page Three: the 21st century. I think it’s fair to say that September 11th changed everything. I don’t even have to say September 11th, 2001, just September 11th. It’s impossible to predict what the United States would have been, would have done, where we’d be now in our public discourse had September 11th not happened. We do know a few things. We do know George W. Bush became President before September eleventh. We do know that Al Gore won the popular vote. Since we don’t have much time, I won’t share with you my views about how George Bush did become President and what happened in Florida and what the Supreme Court did. But it is worth noting that clearly George W. Bush, whatever his strengths and weaknesses, is no Thomas Jefferson. If I were talking to George W. Bush right now, I would say to him, “I knew Thomas Jefferson. I worked with Thomas Jefferson -- well, I did study him -- and you’re no Thomas Jefferson.” (Bill Clinton's middle name is Jefferson -- but he was no Jefferson, either.)

But nonetheless, I think the decisive event was September 11th and it’s hard to estimate what direct impact that had. We can assess the Patriot Act and see that it tried to pry into people’s lives by getting records: what people buy at bookstores and check out of libraries, etc. But I don’t think that that has been by any means the most decisive incursion on the First Amendment. Instead, that has come for the most part from the FCC, which started out in the 21st century as actually not that unreasonable. In fact, Michael Powell was a Clinton appointee and at some point he said -- he’s now the former FCC commissioner -- it’s not fair that cable television has almost no FCC regulation because it’s not broadcasting over the public airways but going through private cables. It’s not fair that cable has no regulation or very little regulation and network television has all this regulation. So Michael Powell said we should equalize this in favor of cable. Let’s make radio and network television more like cable. That seems like a reasonable point of view.

But then something happened on television. Something that concerned another part of the anatomy. This happened during Super Bowl Halftime 2004: the breast that launched a million protests. Actually, not as many protests as people may think. As it turned out about fifty percent of the flood of protests the FCC received were generated by one group: the Parents Television Council headed by Brent Bozell. I’ve had the privilege of debating him on television. His debate style is a combination of grunts and scowls.

Here's a clip for your viewing pleasure ...

But clearly that incident on Superbowl Sunday, if we can believe Michael Powell, traumatized him and galvanized him. He said he was sitting there with his kids and he couldn’t believe what he saw -- I guess there was no breast-feeding in his family -- and this led him onto a campaign to crack down on indecency in television and radio. To give you an idea of just how far-fetched this has gone and what areas it has permeated (this will give me another chance to say “ass,” but I promise it’s the last time):

Last year, Fox -- not Fox News, but the Fox the entertainment network, which is ultimately the same company -- had a cartoon called Family Guy, which a few years earlier in the late 1990s had aired an episode with someone’s bare ass. In a cartoon. A cartoon figure’s bare backside. Well, Fox was so upset in 2004 -- I guess they didn’t want to offend George Bush, their biggest patron, ya know, where would they be then? -- that when Family Guy was brought back, they pixilated, in other words blurred out, the baby’s backside and the father’s backside, too. A cartoon baby’s backside! They went to the effort of pixilating it because they were afraid the FCC would take umbrage.

There have actually been more serious damages to free expression. Saving Private Ryan: many of the ABC affiliates who were supposed to air that movie last November on Veteran’s Day refrained because of the language in that movie. In other words, you’re supposed to have a realistic movie about World War II and about the incredible sacrifices and bravery of those people, but you can’t show how they actually spoke.

The fact is almost a day doesn’t go by when there isn’t a new thing that either the FCC or other parts of the government are doing in violation of the First Amendment. And the chilling effect is in some ways even worse than what the government is actually doing. And furthermore, predictably, what begins as a seemingly innocent campaign against indecency -- all right, you don’t want that part of the body showing on television, what’s the political implication of that? -- well, that doesn’t seem to have any political impact, but predictably that always segues in short order into political censorship.

This past summer the presidential campaign -- among its other aspects -- was probably one of the most dismal times in history for people calling for censorship on all sides. I became aware of it when people began saying they shouldn’t allow -- “they” being the FCC, maybe the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission, who knows with the alphabet soup of government agencies -- they shouldn’t allow ads for Fahrenheit 9/11 on television because they were anti-Bush ads under some interpretation of the McCain-Feingold legislation (I always get a headache when trying to understand that law).

But you know on the other side the Democrats were not much better. They were going insane over the Swift Boat ads. These were anti-Kerry ads. I remember I had dinner with a woman early in the summer who’s a pretty big ad exec, an old friend of mine, and she was saying to me, “I know it’s against the First Amendment, but can’t we do something to prevent those scurrilous ads from being on television?” And there was a petition given to the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, to prevent the Swift Boat anti-Kerry ads from being shown on television. So much for truth and falsity fighting it out in the arena of public discourse.

As a matter of fact, just in the last couple of days we have had a series of new lamentable developments, and some of these are not explicit violations of the First Amendment, but consider this: a federal district court ruled the other day that it’s perfectly fine for universities and colleges to censor their newspapers. Actually a few decades ago courts ruled that it was okay for high schools to censor their newspapers. Now I admit if somebody published an article in The Ram -- the student newspaper on Fordham University's Rose Hill campus where I teach -- that was critical of me, absolutely burn it! No, I wouldn’t want that to happen because although no one likes to see unpleasant things written about them in their school’s publication, what kind of lesson does it give our college students and our high school students to say that the administrations can censor those publications? Technically they have a right because ultimately it’s a private matter. It’s not censorship of a public newspaper. But what it does is give the lesson of John Adams, the lesson that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union later adopted. It is called the social responsibility theory of the press, which holds that the obligation of the press is to support those in charge, not criticize them.

By the way, I don’t mean to unfairly tarnish John Adams. He was no Nazi, no socialist totalitarian. He was a great American, but unfortunately he had a point of view that was picked up by these totalitarians of the twentieth century. And as Karl Popper showed in his book, The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945, people ranging from Plato to Hegel in a sense share the responsibility for providing the philosophies that the Nazis built upon.

Meanwhile, back to today: now the PBS, Public Broadcasting System, is under fire. There’s nothing unconstitutional about that per se, but it’s just an indication of what the people who want to dominate American discourse to the exclusion of contrary opinions are doing. They are claiming that the PBS is riddled with liberal, left-wing points of view. They’re constantly braying on about Bill Moyers. They must be suffering from some kind of serious amnesia because I thought William F. Buckley was on PBS for something like thirty years and last time I checked he was the father of the American conservative movement, so FOX News may not be fair and balanced, but PBS certainly has been to some extent.

Also, the House of Representatives today, just today (that’s what I like about giving this talk, I always have some new material to draw upon) passed a law, a constitutional amendment that would not allow desecration of the American flag. I have to admit when I first heard this, I almost had an ironic mixed feeling because at least they’re showing that the Constitution has to be respected. That’s not what the FCC is doing, which is just stomping on the First Amendment without even acknowledging that that’s a problem. But it shows in what direction America is going, and now we have to hope that the state legislatures don’t ratify that amendment because if we do have a constitutional amendment that makes it illegal to burn or desecrate the flag what will be next? Will it be illegal to criticize the flag? Will it be illegal to criticize the President? Will it be illegal to criticize the Republican Party? That’s what’s worrying here. People don’t like criticism and they seem totally ignorant of the Jeffersonian point of view, and what Jefferson said in the 1800s. There were severely critical things written about him in the press at that time, but he understood that that was the price that had to be paid for freedom.

So in the end -- and this is the end of Page Three and then I’ll be delighted to answer your questions -- in the year 2005, we stand at another crucial juncture regarding the history of the United States but also the history of the human species and freedom of expression and freedom of thought and freedom of the press, and it’s gonna be a very tough battle. At least fifty percent of Americans don’t seem to want that freedom. A survey of high school students last year showed a majority of them didn’t think the First Amendment was necessary and didn’t see why newspapers should be granted that kind of freedom. So at this media ecology convention and for the Media Ecology Association and the study of media ecology, which I think is fair to say has not been a very political discipline -- it’s attempted, as Neil Postman so eloquently said, to understand the media and that’s extremely important, but just as Graduate Dean Nancy Busch said on Wednesday when she offered a challenge -- I’d like to offer this challenge to media ecology students: become aware and politically active and begin to wield and use your media understanding to stand up to these political currents, because if we’re not careful we won’t have anything like the media we’ve had for the past century.

video of my speech



dawn said...

Gee Paul after reading this whole post all I can say is Phew. It is a very interesting speech. I don't know if I agree with everything but I do believe you have the right to say it.I am going to have to watch for you now on TV I have no sound at work so have not heard your broadcast. If anything you gave me a great history lesson and Carlins list is still AS PREVELANT TODAY MY KIDS HAVE HEARD IT AND APPRECIATE HIM.(don't mind font hit the cap by mistake) Now to be honest I thought burning the flag was already a law. I'm sure alot of people think so. Good Post

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks, Dawn. The important point is indeed that people should be able to say and write whatever they like. If it's wrong or bad or insulting, other people can point that out. Far better than the government stepping in, and interfering with this naturally correcting process.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your blog recently and have kept coming back daily. Thank you for sharing this speech. It is very comforting to hear such passionate argument for our first amendment.

Years ago, when Howard Stern was having all the FCC trouble, he quoted the 1st amend and it was like the first time I had understood those beautiful words and all the freedoms it bestows.
Even though Lenny Bruce had a harder time defending the 1st amend *understatment* both Lenny and Howard, to me, are great American Heros for their ability to convey the importance of the 1st amend.

Mr. Levinson, you are now one of my American Heros.


Paul Levinson said...

:) Thank you, Denise - I'm glad you found and are enjoying Infinite Regress...

Anyone who likes what's here can call me Paul...