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By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Decries Our Willing Surrender of Free Speech Rights

     Recently I was reminded of how much power we, the country who “believes” in free speech with all our might and main, have been willing to turn over to others.

     A notable example was a movie review in the “Reel Critics” column of my hometown press. Gary Moskowitz, the paper’s education reporter, reviewed the teen flick, Thirteen. I found it interesting because, rather than synopse the plot line, or critique the style, he criticized the fact that many young viewers will not benefit from seeing it because of its “R” rating. A movie like this that is frank about the temptations and trials of a couple of thirteen-year-old girls, he argued, is a fine lesson for youngsters in this age range. He has it right.

     A young friend of mine who once had a drug problem and now lives in sobriety told me that the drug education program in the schools (at least back when she was attending) tended to glorify drugs by explaining in great detail the exciting hallucinatory and other affects of drugs. He argues that movies like 28 Days (gratefully tagged only with a PG-13) rating, would have been a far more realistic education on the subject of what drugs can do to one’s life.

     Many young viewers will not benefit from seeing Thirteen because their parents won’t let them. Those who do will be in the company of parents who choose to “openly deal with issues like sex, drugs and stealing,” as Moskowitz notes. With parents like these, these lucky young people would most probably be the teens least likely to need it. Further, if parents of wayward children (those they think must be kept under their thumb) really think that an enforced rating of “R” will keep their children out of the auditorium where this film is playing, they are mistaken. Those children will have fake IDs or friends who work at the theater. The ratings tend to be arbitrary, cannot be enforced and only erode our notions of what free speech is. Once whittled upon, it becomes ever easier for those in power to eat away at those rights one bit at a time.

     As a former teacher, sometime contributor to the News-Press’ “Reel Critics” and author of This is the Place, a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who must overcome suppression, the movie rating system has bothered me for some time. Admittedly, I have never been one to condone censorship, not since I took a civics class in the eighth grade and learned that our founding fathers forgot to put it into the Constitution and how this grievous oversight was rectified by the First Amendment.

     The connection between the concepts of free speech and censorship are diametrically opposed to one another. There is a strain of journalism in me that goes back to the dark ages; I see very little advantage to encouraging our government or any other authority to make decisions better made for ourselves because they will ultimately infringe on one or more of our freedoms. If, as an open society, we must risk exposure rather than give up our most precious rights, so be it. An opinion like mine would have once been considered conservative. Something has happened over the decades and now it is the political right that seems so eager to give up their rights to just about anybody who wants to “protect” others from anything that they find personally immoral and, dare I say it, from those who don’t agree with them.

     The trouble with this, of course, is that by protecting others--by deciding for them--we are teaching them not only that they don’t have to think for themselves, but not to think for themselves. Thirteen-year-olds are not only capable of forming their own opinions but will actually turn into better citizens if we teach them to do so. If we think that we are protecting our young teens from the world at large with rules that keep them from choosing their own viewing material we are living in denial. We need to be putting our efforts toward guiding young people to understand better what they will see and experience in this ever changing society. Hiding reality behind a rating will not help us to do that.

     In the Jurassic, sometime in the 70s, my daughter was attending junior high school in our home town. She chose to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. She was told it wasn’t appropriate. To be sure, that made her selection all the more enticing to her so she enlisted my help. A compromise was worked out with the school after some difficulty. They allowed her to read the book and submit a written report--not an oral one as required by the other students-- and only if I would visit the teacher to give my permission. I complied. My daughter learned more about the corrosive quality of intolerance from that book (and from the entire experience surrounding her choice) than from all the other guidance I had tried to give her in that subject up to that point. Later (1983) Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novels which “illuminate the human condition.” I felt exonerated, as if my crusade against misguided censorship (as, in my opinion, censorship usually--if not certainly--is) had been worthwhile.

     The other problem with “protecting” others is that when we censor or proselytize, we send our audience the unspoken message that their opinions—nay even their ability to form those opinions—is somehow inferior to ours. Offering an opinion for consideration is not the same thing as presenting it as the only rational option or, worse still, forcing it upon others with rules or laws that impede their choices.

     I am amazed that in a society where literacy is high, that we not only put up with enforced censorship like the “R” rating, but that we encourage it. How much better if an adult who knew someone aged “Thirteen” actually invited her to see the movie, then took her for a Coke and discussed self-destructive behavior—how it affects both those who do it and those around them.

     Perhaps that would be expecting too much in terms of time and love. Perhaps that is why we seem so willing to turn over our freedoms to The Motion Picture Association’s Code and Rating Office whose members may or may not share your family values or mine and, even if they did, couldn’t communicate them with a couple of capital letters as well as any parent could over a piece of pizza and a lemonade.

     Here are some books and movies (other than those in bold face mentioned above) that call out for a big, chatty chocolate fudge sundae experience:

Girl Interrupted: You can get the video in English or Spanish as well as the original novel.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, an old standby.
Less than Zero: Get it on video.
Traffic: Also available on video.
The Fort of Solitude: This is a new novel you may want to explore before you share with it with a teen.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: A lesson on censorship in general can also be good for communications.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Streetfighting: Low Cost Advertising/Promotions for Your Business by Jeff Slutsky is not written for writers per se but it covers cross promotions, free mentions, discount cards, contests, and more—all subjects that writers, whether they are published by a big press or small, will find edifying. It is published by Prentice Hall, Inc.

Readers' Tip: When I attended the Book Expo America in Los Angeles this year I ran into a gentleman who loves books, particularly classics. He pressed upon me a copy of his new CD, Library of Classics: Your own personal library of over a thousand classic books—All on One CD. The back says that “with the click of a mouse, you can be reading hundreds of classics” from War and Peace to War of the Worlds. Published by Amerisearch, Inc., find them at or at 1 –888-USA-World. The ISBN for this item is 0965355772.

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Carolyn Decries Our Willing Surrender of Free Speech Rights

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