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To some, ‘obscene’ art not to be seen, heard

By Brian J. Buchanan
First Amendment Center Online managing editor

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  • NASHVILLE, Tenn. — History shows censors going to great lengths to restrict art, painting, drama, film, dance and photography. How far does the First Amendment go in protecting them?

    First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler considered that question today at the center in the fifth in his series of lectures exploring the history of First Amendment freedoms.

    “Every visual and performing art form has, at times, come in for heavy denunciation by religionists or politicians,” Seigenthaler said. Today’s lecture, “The Cultural Chasm: Defining Obscenity,” surveyed the subject of art, outrage and obscenity.

    Last year's worldwide “Muhammad cartoon” uproar over caricatures of Islam’s founder in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten served as Seigenthaler’s opening free-speech flashpoint.

    “Cartoons can be powerful, mood-changing, mind-changing art,” Seigenthaler said. Should newspapers publish cartoons that might offend millions of Muslims or members of other religious faiths? The former Tennessean editor’s answer:

    “I would have published the drawings on the opposite editorial page … . Then on the editorial page I would have criticized the Posten for bad judgment, first in soliciting the cartoons, and second for failing to consider the sensitivities involved.”

    Looking back to Colonial America, Seigenthaler noted a number of Puritan attempts to place drama outside the pale of human decency. In New Hampshire, a 1712 decree outlawed performances of plays because they exercised “a peculiar influence on the minds of young people and greatly endanger their morals by amusing and intriguing them.”

    Colonial authorities tended to “frown” on the appearance of theaters in early Jamestown, Va., Charleston, S.C., and New York from 1716 to 1736, Seigenthaler said.

    “For a long time the public seemed tolerant of the idea that the government knew best in terms of what should be seen and what should be read,” he said of early American attitudes toward censorship. He attributed acceptance of “the practice of government censorship and religious criticism of art” to “the church-state beginnings of the nation.”

    Seigenthaler chronicled the campaign against obscenity and indecency by Anthony Comstock, a moral crusader who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873. Comstock “declared war on what he considered obscene and lewd,” using local statutes and lawsuits to confiscate books and pictures and bringing about arrests, jail terms and fines for thousands of people.

    In modern times, the Federal Communications Commission has assumed the government role of deciding and regulating what is objectionable on the airwaves. The FCC has the power to punish, through fines and license revocation, radio or TV broadcast of such obscene material as words and images describing sexual activity or excretory functions. It has doled out fines for Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe "malfunction" and Howard Stern’s sexual and scatological ramblings.

    But, Seigenthaler observed, “As communications technology has evolved, the FCC has found it more and more difficult to act in any meaningful way to restrict what it may consider objectionable or even to define what is obscene.” Further, he said, the FCC’s regulatory power does not extend to cable TV.

    It was not until the mid-20th century that the law protected movies from being banned for offending various mores and sensibilities, Seigenthaler said. He cited the 1952 case Burstyn v. Wilson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the New York Board of Regents could not ban Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle under regulations barring "sacrilegious" films.

    The Miracle depicted a visionary young woman who believes she sees religious revelation in the person of a bearded wanderer. On becoming pregnant, the girl asserts that the man was a saint, the imminent birth a miracle. Angry protests from the Catholic Church in the United States prompted the New York Board of Regents to withdraw the film’s license.

    Seigenthaler noted the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous struggle to define obscenity as coming down to “I know it when I see it.”

    “So do we all,” Seigenthaler said. “But we don’t all see it exactly the same way, nor do we always agree on what is obscene.”

    Drawing from the First Amendment Center’s “Freedom Sings” performance program featuring banned music, Seigenthaler laid out a bewildering array of songs squelched for themes or lyrics deemed too sexy or otherwise objectionable.

    On the list were such songs from the 1950s as “Four or Five Times” (Dottie O’Brien), “Wham Bam, Thank You Ma’am” (Dean Martin) and “Love for Sale” (Billie Holiday). Cole Porter ran into trouble over the lyric, “I get no kick from cocaine” in “I Get A Kick Out of You” (1953).

    Early in the rock ‘n’ roll era, amid hysterical fear over the supposed effects of rock lyrics and singers’ movements on impressionable teens, the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1958 barred all of its stations from playing rock music.

    "I'm not sure whatever happened to the Mutual Broadcasting System," Seigenthaler joked about the now-defunct network.

    Some of these songs were banned by local governments, others by skittish program managers. “The FCC’s power over radio can cause stations to self-censor,” Seigenthaler said.

    Turning to public libraries, Seigenthaler catalogued a list of books kept or swept off shelves at one time or another, including such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22 and even Little Red Riding Hood and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

    More-recent victims of library censorship: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

    “Because libraries are public,” Seigenthaler said, removal or refusal of books “amounts to an official ban.”

    Seigenthaler was careful to distinguish between the right of private individuals and groups to criticize and condemn works of art from government attempts to outlaw them.

    “There is a First Amendment right to express yourself, but it is the First Amendment right that prevents government from influencing the expression,” he said.

    The lecture series, “Conversations with John Seigenthaler,” concludes on Nov. 17 with “The First Amendment: For Better or For Worse?”


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    Conversations with John Seigenthaler collection page

    Seigenthaler lecture 5: To some, 'obscene' art not to be seen, heard, Part 1

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