Free Expression

On Hearing
by James Ragan

The First Amendment and Other
Origins of Free Prattle

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On Hearing
by James Ragan

Several days earlier in the dark hollow of the Court Street Theater, with the final reel of Easy Rider playing out its spool, hundreds of students who had stood fast all week to protest the bombing of Cambodia, and who now stoically watched Jack Nicholson's character being bludgeoned to death by "rednecks," no different in their minds from the town police monitoring the corridors of Athens streets, these same students were now screaming, rising to their feet as two "rednecks" in a pick-up truck shot-gunned our heroes--the Easy Riders, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda--whose characters were left languishing in corner cameos on the screen while the crane shot lifted, memorable for its camera angle, rising high above the faint smoke of burning cycles. And within desperate moments, the students rushed the exits, and out to the pavement, smashing windows, their frustrations channeled toward the shops of the many townspeople who themselves felt desperate and threatened by the jeers and chants of the previous weeks, decrying the Vietnam War, many of whom themselves were patriotic World War Two veterans.

The entire central quad of the Ohio University campus had transformed itself into a fire zone as the night sky was laced with smoke spiraling first from tear-gas canisters and later from shocks of fire sporadically spawned from improvised torched posters, as we crouched, stumbling in retreat, wet handkerchiefs masking our eyes, tears swathing our cheeks. Sirens pursued the main host of students down Court and Main, while we negotiated the criss-cross of sycamores and benches, barely seen in the nesting haze. Blindly we dashed, now holding hands, toward the entrance of Ellis Hall, and tripping up through the stairwell's stagnant smoke, we climbed gratefully to the top floor's English Department lounge as though some comfort or respite awaited us there, some deep song of solace from a Frostian will to "mend" fences or to "good neighbors make" out of such divisive town and gown sensibilities.

But instead, the images of "East Coker" and the "Purgatorio" raged within our senses as we stared down increduously to the street where police were building barricades, and students, soaking eyes with towels to soothe the pepper spray, were lobbing back spent canisters, and just as quickly more were hurled out of the gauntlet of helmeted policemen. The word "pig" had never been mentioned before this confrontation by those around me, but the clear boundary of a battle-line was permanently formed in our minds.

In time, our fears had led to resignation, and an embittered stand-off was at hand. Within days the Ohio National Guard was commissioned to restore peace to the city. Campus-wide protests were the ritual of the day, as clergy and administrators took turns in decrying the "unwarranted violence" of the unruly few, while near the center of campus, poets and professors with microphones, pitched their voices over loudspeakers to enumerate the body count on Asian battlefields and to protest American presence in Saigon. Cheering crowds, wearing bandanas to harness their long hair and painting peace signs on their shirts and foreheads, were growing exponentially in numbers, defiant to the week-to-week extension of Nixon's war into late spring.

The country was slowly giving a reluctant ear to the many young impassioned students, nationwide, who joined the growing cadre of critics in the media and on political fronts to question both the historical and political sanctities of the Vietnam conflict. Lives were commissioned by lotteries to serve and by morality to object.

Soon, those of us who were students as well as instructors were asked to lead the rallies on the quad during the daily sit-ins and marches that were galvanizing the newly converted militants.

On the morning that I rose toward noon to shower and rush the cooled coffee through my lips, preparing out of disarray the poems I had planned to use to mobilize the student assembly later that afternoon on the quad, an uneasiness settled in as I prepared my shoulder bag and key to latch the door. The last act of the morning ritual was to let the radio wail with Hendrix, Dylan or the Beatles, when in an instant, one that would rape the peace in my heart and slow my footsteps toward some uncertain fate, an instant of perverse meaning, sad with words, broke in to interrupt the joy in all music --

While it has not been confirmed, we have received reports that four students at Kent State University have been shot during protests and rioting on the campus . . .

On hearing these words, I knew the world had turned. I knew the war had come home, not only for the four students doomed to history pages, nor for the black students reported as casualties on a campus in Mississippi, but for the tens of thousands of students across American campuses. Soldiers were now shooting students. The war had come home.

As I latched the door and passed into the yard and down the driveway for the long, sad walk toward campus, I brushed away tears, gulping quick sobs, and still my mind kept repeating: "They've turned on us, they're shooting the students. The war has turned. We're the enemy now."

As I approached Court Street, I was beginning to feel my own vulnerability. I could very well be a solitary voice on the stage today. Any intellectualizing of the events had passed. Never had such emptiness taken hold on such a visceral level. At the end of this very long afternoon's demonstration, I could very well be dead.

I approached the intersection of Court and Main, my eyes avoiding those of the young Reservists, recently called up to uniform in the Ohio National Guard. These were frightened young men trained by those who would bear the guilt of the shootings up the highway at Kent State, an incident then only hours away. I could see both contempt and fear as they watched students pass. Every one of these young soldiers held a finger to a trigger which could end a life.

In moments, more students passed, and within the hour, hundreds, then thousands of students gathered, and now, the townspeople--several of whom were victims of our rampage only days before--had gathered as well, willing mourners on the outskirts of the quad. And courage found its way through numbers to join in a chorus of grief as not one, but five, then ten individual speakers climbed to the stage, each prepared to face the certain challenge of his or her convictions. Each was prepared to face the deadly force of an occupying enemy. But none was to come.

Instead, a song, chanted daily for weeks, had risen on tongues and, now joined with compassion, had given us the unity to believe we could "overcome." In the passions of this chant, I gained the courage to rise and read my poems, and another stood up, and still others, and out of poems, and out of the sadness flung high into our minds, the campus tuned silently into vigil, like the city, like the state, and like the country which for the sake of all lives was now not willing to sacrifice its own, not on a college campus, not on American streets, and not, in time, in Vietnam.

June, 2001

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The First Amendment and Other
Origins of Free Prattle

Freedom of speech is the compensation demanded by those who want to avoid thinking.
-- Søren Kierkegaard

The true test of a free society is not whether people are free to publish respected, popular, and approved materials. The true test of freedom is whether people are free to publish vile, despicable, and contemptible items. . . . So, the next time you see Nazi memorabilia being advertised and sold in the United States, count your lucky stars that you live in a society in which the Founders rejected the old European mindset of control and chose liberty instead.
"Yahoo! We Have Free Speech," Hornberger,

Principles in the mouths of the American populace are just that, there for the spouting in one breath: "No one is above the law." Pause, repeat. Pause, repeat more loudly. Rote-trained in the epousal, but uneducated in the critical application of constitutional and other fundamental civics principles, they are incapable of identifying and balancing competing interests, the province, theoretically, of the legislature, the people's delegates to the open and vigorous debate of the issues of the day.

Note how the cadence duplicates that of commercial slogans: "You deserve a break today" or "We bring good things to life." Compare the outmoded cadence of "See the USA in your Chevrolet" or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Syllables and stresses have been lost to shortness of breath, the mark of an anxious speaker who expects to be interrupted--and to interrupt in return. He no more anticipates a shared discourse with his vis-à-vis than if the other had asserted the principle, "e = mc2," one he is quite nearly as incapable of using in a sentence--to borrow on the traditional means to test for facility with newly acquired (conceptual) vocabulary.

In his interview with Paul McDonald which appears in this month's issue, poet Ron Price reminds us that the American way was created through the exercise of (unnatural) violence to obliterate a pre-existing, native culture. He suggests that we are not invulnerable to pangs of conscience for ancestral wrong-doing, but contends that we have applied enormous effort, not to repentance, but rather, to forgetting. The concomitant of consigning our past violence to oblivion, he says, is that we devalue history altogether--or presumably at least so much as is inglorious. We are quite as ready to distort by enlargement as by minimization.

The uninterruptable Internet oratory reproduced above is typical of the ("My country, right or wrong!") boosterism engendered by the combination of rage and forgetfulness which Price has identified. The parochial sentiment, free-floating and gratuitous, know no season; it is not occasioned by any discernible Fourth of July connection. The author decries the recent injunctions issued by French and German courts against Internet auctioneers of Nazi memorabilia, to withdraw from or to block the market access of buyers within their jurisdictions on grounds that the purchase of such articles is unlawful, as Nazi tactics in themselves:

. . . French and German authorities today assume and exercise . . . the power to determine what is acceptable speech and to criminalize the publication of what is considered to be unacceptable. . . .The mindset . . . is no different today than it was 60 years ago under Hitler and his henchmen.

Here forgotten is the grade-school knowledge that Thomas Jefferson spent the five years preceding 1789 as minister (ambassador) to France and was profoundly influenced by French concepts of free speech, as was Benjamin Franklin, who preceded him there. Lafayette's French-language draft for an American Declaration of Independence is in the Library of Congress. Hardly a mindset rejected by the founders, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man is undisputedly the immediate precursor of the Bill of Rights (First Amendment adopted 1791), and was adopted by the United Nations upon the creation of that body in 1948.

The author goes on to assure his readers that the Congress is absolutely barred from legislating abridgments to free speech, yet it is settled law that commercial speech enjoys lesser Constitutional protection. Server liability for electronic communication of race-disparaging messages by neo-Nazis and others has been exhaustively treated in the law reviews. Hate crimes legislation adopted at the state level, and pending in the Congress, carries severe criminal penalties. Under Canadian law, similar penalties extend to the incitement of hatred. A factual scenario whereby the auction of Nazi memorabilia is enhanced through the use of incautious exhortation or personal self-expression is quite readily conceived.

To query just where free speech crosses the line to thoughtless self-assertion or -aggrandizement with harmful effect is the obligation of thoughtful persons with a willing memory for history. Less speech and more listening may be key as well.

It is time for Christians to intercede both in prayer and in urging their respective governmental officials to not only DELAY the implementation of any further legislation of this kind, but to effectively put a stop to any and all of Big Brother's intention to take away our God-given privilege to think and speak what we believe in our hearts.

With cant and cadence intact, here "In God We Trust" does the bigot's service. Forgotten is the debt to another thoughtful and eloquent Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whose God-fearing citizen was to have embraced the social contract with no concession of his natural rights, but with a full measure of responsibility for its successful performance.

Whatever its library (a Constitutional provision much overlooked), the true test of a free society may rather be universal literacy--and curiosity.

-- MH

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