Writers Must Defend the First Amendment
edited: Thursday, December 30, 2004
By Patricia C Behnke
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004
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Writers are the first and last vestiges to protect freedom of expression and any attempt to limit that freedom is an attempt to destroy it.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence because his strength lay in his use of language to present powerful arguments, rather than in his political savvy.
He believed “freedom of speech cannot be limited without being lost.” Throughout written history it has been the writers, whether dramatic or journalistic, who have brought us diverse ideas from which we are able to choose our own beliefs.
In 2000, the A&E Channel’s Biography series named Johannes Gutenberg as the most influential person of the millennium. Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. From that time forward the greatest ideas of the millennium and beyond came to be known by the masses.
Without the means of the printing press, the ideas of the greatest inventions and ideas would not be known to man. What type of world would this be without the literature, political treatises, the varied religious documents, and poetry?
These ideas, diverse and prolific, provide us with the basis from which to form our own opinions and to create our own art, whether it be poetry, painting, sculpture, or religious or political tracts. And it is the writer who puts those words on paper to express the art of language. Writers have long been the first and last vestiges of Thomas Jefferson’s plea to resist censorship in any of its guises.
That is why I have been so concerned about an organization to which I have belonged for the past three years. The Florida’s Writers Association has as its motto, “Writers supporting writers.”
Recently, the political winds of censorship permeated the core of this group who should stand above all others in zealous protection of freedom of speech.
At the annual convention in November, a film was shown that had been produced by FWA’s president, Caryn Suarez. She had solicited photos and videos from members to make a year-in-review film. Last year’s first place unpublished poetry winner, Henry Burt Stevens, submitted a video-reading of his Royal Palm Award poem, “Victory.” Suarez chose to lead the film with this artistic reading.
I could justify the placement of this poem in the video and offer my own interpretation of certain lines that caused a great stirring of controversy, but I will not. I will not because it does not matter what the poem means. It is one man’s offering on a topic, and it is his freedom of expression. It was Suarez’s freedom of choice that put it in the film.
The protests began before the film even finished at the convention. Suarez was banned by the rest of the board of FWA from selling the DVD, which she and her husband had produced at their own expense. Suarez was hounded and threatened with lawsuits from writers across the state. But the controversy started even earlier when the board met at the beginning of the conference and a member put a motion on the floor that would block membership to any political writers.
My first reaction to that news was to kick that person off the board, but by censoring that person’s opinion I would also be participating in what Jefferson would call the loss of freedom of speech. I am grateful that the motion did not pass and cooler heads prevailed.
However, the controversy still continues. One FWA member wrote an email to the general membership chat board, opposing the showing of the poem at the convention because he disagreed with the content of the poem.
I did too, but I will fight to the end for Steven’s and Suarez’s right to expression. I have the option to write my own poetry expressing my own opinion. However, my colleague who shares my opinion of the poem believes that if the poem must be explained and cannot stand alone then it should not be subjected upon the public.
The email asked for an FWA president who would pass everything by a committee of peers before anything was presented to the membership at large. In other words, “this committee of peers” would decide what the other members could or could not see or hear.
I would remind the email writer that this very policy began one of the Hitler’s first actions in creating the Aryan state. His “committee of peers” began censoring books in Nazi Germany and even went so far as to burn piles of books that did not fit with the government’s narrow definitions of acceptable expression.
Perhaps I should not be so surpised by this attitude in a country founded on the principles of freedom of expression that now has “free speech zones” wherever the President is going to appear. In Pittsburgh Bill Neel was arrested for refusing to go into the “free speech zone” before President Bush’s appearance in 2002. He told the press, “As far as I’m concerned the whole country is a free speech zone.”
Apparently not anymore.
Defenders of the First Amendment must protect all of our rights of expression and remember that a difference of opinion only makes us stronger.
John F. Kennedy said in 1963, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
And writers above all others must stand tall in defense of tolerance of expression of all opinions or we are doomed to become one voice, one opinion, one life — bland and Milquetoast copies of whatever the party or religion in power deems us to be.
And when that becomes the norm, then all the work of the Gutenbergs and all the writings of the Jeffersons will have been in vain.