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Defending dissent

Joan Bertin, executive director of the US National Coalition Against Censorship, tells how 11 September changed things for freedom of speech.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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‘Until 11 September, our work focused on cultural issues – sex, religion…defending Harry Potter’, said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). Accused by the religious right of promoting Satanism, glorifying magic and disrespecting God, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series were the most censored books in the USA in 2000.

But since then, the US government has been at war – and in times of war censorship can be legitimised in the name of national security. The US government also has the increased censorship and surveillance powers granted by the new anti-terrorism act. How has this changed the job of opposing censorship?

When I spoke to Bertin six weeks after the terrorist attacks on the USA, she said that she watched the passing of the anti-terrorism act with a great sense of trepidation. ‘It greatly expands the powers of government in directions that we thought were not possible in this country’, said Bertin. ‘We are shocked to see the national security adviser suggest to network executives that they should edit and perhaps decline to air taped statements from Osama bin Laden because they might be inflammatory or contain coded massages.’

The Autumn 2001 issue of the NCAC magazine Censorship News flags up the reality of encroaching government censorship: ‘Already national security concerns are cited to justify expanded government power to detain immigrants, monitor electronic communications, invade online privacy, control news media, suppress dissent.’ (1)

But on the other hand, it is perhaps important to guard against exaggerating the threat of government censorship post-11 September, when a lot of things seem less clear. As Bertin argues, many of the implications of the anti-terrorism act still remain to be seen. ‘It’s a very interesting time. I don’t know where it’s going. I know that everybody is geared up, but I think my view of this statute will depend on first of all how it is enforced. It depends whether courts are prepared to enforce constitutional restraints.’ And even back in October 2001, there may have been little sight of a significant anti-war movement in America – but nor did there seem to be much overt state oppression of anti-war views.

The impact of the anti-terrorism act will also depend on the attitude of the American public towards encroaching government censorship. ‘People who accept the war in Afghanistan may not accept incursions upon their own liberty’, says Bertin. But the public mood is shaky, scared, and concerned about outside threats – which is not exactly a great basis for the defending of freedoms from the state.

‘At the moment, the public is focused on the continuing threat from anthrax and other terrorist acts. As long as people feel physically threatened, they are likely to tolerate a great deal more in terms of incursions on their liberties’, says Bertin. A people petrified by the threat from without will be less likely to worry about government incursions.

But in many ways, it seems that much of the censorship of speech since 11 September has come less from the government than from American citizens themselves. After the attacks, says Bertin, there was a willingness to clamp down on debate across the board. ‘There is a whole trend towards acting as if it is unpatriotic to want to know what is going on, or to be critical’, says Bertin. ‘You can’t refer to “it” in any way other than as a terrible tragedy. Any humour, any criticism of the government, any reference to the events without almost a religious overtone – all of this is off-limits.’

‘Everybody is supposed to talk about this in a certain way that forecloses either human responses or constructive commentary. It is a terribly dangerous moment.’ Bertin mentions the increasing unwillingness of Democrats to scrutinise government policy, Newsday pulling the comic strip ‘The Boondocks’ from its paper because it referred to US support of Osama bin Laden during the Afghan war, columnists fired for criticising Bush’s disappearance immediately after the attacks.

And with the self-censorship of the US media, some Americans are having to look elsewhere for their commentary. ‘It is ironic to see Americans getting their news from Al-Jazeera, or the BBC, because our news sources have been shut down’, said Bertin.

Bertin says that after 11 September the job of the NCAC became more political. ‘Before, the National Coalition Against Censorship had very little political dissent work – we rarely got calls from students or teachers saying they had been disciplined for expressing a political view. Now, it’s everything.’ In the past, some people couldn’t see the importance of the NCAC’s defence of the right of kids to read Harry Potter or Huckleberry Finn – ‘they would say: why get yourself in a lather about it?’.

But some of the other examples of campaigns taken up by NCAC since 11 September make me wonder if, in the war against terrorism, many censorship issues are still as much cultural as they are political.

A man was banned from a plane because the book he was reading had a picture of stick of dynamite on the cover. The Baltimore Museum of Art removed a painting titled ‘Terrorist’ ‘out of respect to visitors’ sensitivities’. Clear Channel Communications circulated a list of songs to its 1200 channels across the country, including Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones and Imagine by John Lennon, with a suggestion that radio stations didn’t play the 150 songs on the list (2).

A fifth-grade student from Jefferson County, Missouri was suspended for three days for drawing a picture of the World Trade Centre on fire and taping it to his study cubicle. Librarians at the Florida Gulf Coast University who made badges with American flags and the words ‘Proud to be an American’ were told not to wear them because they might offend international students at the school.

These cases are not so much restraints on political opinions as they are on everyday forms of expression. After the attacks of 11 September, harmless songs were deemed unplayable, flags are deemed obligatory by some and offensive by others, paintings painted years ago are removed from gallery walls. On the home front, then, the censorship battle is as much about what are deemed the appropriate modes of individual expression and response to the attacks as it is an argument about which political views are right and which are wrong.

Some Americans seem to be holding back from challenging the government line in order to create an appearance of unity – as if this was patriotic. ‘But we are not united’, said Bertin – now, perhaps more than ever, differences of opinion exist, and it is important that these differences be fought out in the public sphere. This argument was forcefully put in the statement sent to US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld by the NCAC and other organisations:

‘Scrutiny of the war on terrorism and publication of dissenting viewpoints are not signs of disloyalty to the nation, but rather expressions of confidence in democratic self-government and fulfilment of the First Amendment function of holding government accountable.’ (3)

Bertin is right that these are potentially dangerous times for free expression. And the NCAC is doing the important job of reminding people of ‘the American way’ of responding to a crisis: ‘by questioning, analysing, debating and expressing opinions.’ We in the UK would do well to propagate this attitude on this side of the Atlantic.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

‘We can never be safe – but at least we can be free’, by Jennie Bristow

Online insecurity, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issues: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Free speech

See the website of the National Coalition Against Censorship

(1) The First Amendment in the Shadow of Terrorism, Issue 83, Fall 2001

(2) Free Expression After 11 September – An Online Index, NCAC website

(3) Statement Sent to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Wartime Censorship, 17 October 2001, NCAC website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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