24 Jul 2009
A Critical Analysis of “A First Amendment Junkie”
Susan Jacoby wrote her controversial essay “A First Amendment Junkie” in 1978. Although she was a female journalist with a good reputation, the publication of this essay made her to be better known in women’s society as a “First Amendment junkie” particularly for her candid views relating to the censorship of pornography. In this essay, she held out her firm belief that it was wrong to impose any kind of censorship against pornography as it violated the right to freedom of speech and press guaranteed under the First Amendment. Little wonder that such a radical view ruffled many a feather of feminist activists in particular who found it hard to accept the fact that one of their kind was expressly advocating the right of pornography to exist at all.
In this paper, an attempt has been made to analyze the assertions of the essayist and hold it to scrutiny in light of contrarian views and to present argumentative conclusions on this controversial topic of great concern to society at large.
Jacoby’s essay unfolds, in her own words, as an “absolute interpretation” (Jacoby) of the First Amendment in relation to the rights concerning a wide range of expression modes in general and pornography in particular. She effectively argues that it is possible on the one hand to frown upon pornography and at the same time to defend the right to freedom of expression that is guaranteed by the First Amendment. She shows how one needs to take a holistic and healthy view of the whole issue without taking rigid stances as either anti- or pro-First Amendment.
This essay presents a bold defense of her unique stance and image as a “First Amendment junkie” and what it means for her in the society of her times. Her unswerving conviction that the First Amendment must be upheld at all costs without regard to the content of expression found little appeal with the feminist groups. This in effect implied that expression of even prurient and vulgar stuff (read “pornography”) would pass muster even if it might be offensive to certain groups of audience.
It is not surprising to note that Jacoby admitted to having been ostracized and berated by “many women [she] likes and respects” (Jacoby) for her bold views in this controversial essay. The essayist herself finds pornography offensive, nonetheless she stoutly opposes the averment that it embodies a mode of expression that is particularly vile, dangerous and as such to be forbidden. Jacoby thinks that such an averment is grounded in “the implicit conviction that [pornography] poses a greater threat to women than similarly repulsive exercises of free speech pose to other offended groups.” (Jacoby).
Susan Jacoby has a lucid style of putting her bold views across with candor and conviction. She minces no words in castigating the contestants of the First Amendment. She handles a difficult and controversial topic with the ease of a martial art expert, but for the fact that her only weapon is her incisive ideas and her armor unswerving honesty. By the very title– apparently degrading to herself–”A First Amendment Junkie”, Jacoby draws upon the curiosity of the readers and eggs them on to engage in this tricky but substantial social debate on pornography and the freedom of expression.
The essay contains her pithy and engaging criticism of the feminists who cried foul of her apparently outrageous defense of the right to expression without excluding pornography per se. It reveals our predilections and prejudices in the matter of interpreting legislation insofar as it pertains to the touchy topic of pornography. Jacoby argues how subjective value propositions and personal preferences lie at the root of an antagonistic approach to categorizing what needs safeguarding or otherwise in the matter of free expression. It sets a precedent to draw the lines between what a group of people in society like or dislike. This in turn leads to a flawed framework of judgmental appreciation to determine what is permissible or otherwise, purely depending upon its finding favor with the biased group. Such a process, Jacoby argues, detracts from what in truth art or creativity stand for, and even creates barriers to their own existence or continuity.
I tend to agree with Jacoby’s observation that the right to free speech and expression must not be fettered on the plea that certain forms of expression such as in pornography appear to be vulgar or offensive to certain groups of people. The essayist thinks that opposition to the First Amendment takes its sustenance from the subscribers’ failure or incompetence to handle hard issues with courage and maturity. She does have a strong argument for keeping moral policing at bay. Perhaps the solution to preventing the pernicious effects of disseminating such offensive materials to impressionable minds lies elsewhere, and not in the quick-fix remedy of proscribing.
Susan Jacoby does not condone or deny that pornography per se can be vulgar, insulting and offensive. At the same time she cannot subscribe to the view that certain forms of free expression such as pornography can be more pernicious or oppressive than others–racial, ethnic, or anti-Semitic writings or expressions, for instance. Although her averments appear to be anti-society at first sight, a deeper reading of her essay will show that if the right to free expression of pornography is shackled under the law, then the American society must be prepared to shut out many other such ideas and their expression as well. Susan rightly concluded that when we are faced with a hard situation in the context of the First Amendment, the temptation to “censor” is quite irresistible, but a better course lies in putting our “faith in the possibilities of democratic persuasion.” (Jacoby, 2005). The bottom-line of her argument is that the fundamental structure and intent of the First Amendment must not get diluted simply by virtue of the objections or personal preferences of some sections of society. This is not to preclude the possibility of eliminating lacunas that may exist in the legislation itself.
Jacoby, Susan. “First Amendment Junkie.” Critical Thinking. Barnet, Sylvan and Hugo Bedaw. Boston: Bedford St. Martin, 2005. 41-43.
On Racist Speech: A Critical Analysis
Charles R. Lawrence III, a professor of law at Stanford University, wrote the article “On Racist Speech” against the growing incidence of racial violence, especially in University campuses in the U.S. A college campus has the status of a “home” for the students residing therein, and as such any racist aggression or violence in general and racist speech in particular have the potential to disturb the law, order, and harmony in the social environment, apart from causing injury to the victims of such racial behavior. This paper attempts to analyze the reasons and arguments mooted by Lawrence to demand that racist speech must be regulated, more so in a college campus environment. It also examines how such regulation will impinge upon, or impact, the rights assured under the First Amendment.
Lawrence begins his article with a focus on the unmistakable message that racial speech “sends a destructive message to minorities that they are inferior and are in turn second class citizens.” (Lawrence). He further feels that the problem of racist speech “has been framed as one in which the liberty of free speech is in conflict with the elimination of racism.” He continues: “I believe this has placed the bigot on the moral high ground and fanned the rising flames of racism. Above all, I am troubled that we have not listened to the real victims, that we have shown so little understanding of their injury, and that we have abandoned those whose race, gender, or sexual preference continues to make them second-class citizens.” (Lawrence).
The essayist laments that libertarians in civil society who stoutly oppose the plea for clamping down on racist speech have turned away their ears from the cries of the real victims as they do not really understand or appreciate the nature and extent of harm suffered by the victims. Exposing the reality of how championing the cause of free speech for its own sake comes in conflict with efforts to eradicate racism, Lawrence makes an impassioned case for eliciting support from the powers-that-be. A major support that the essayist relies on to drive home his point is the now famously known Brown v. Board of Education case that finally drew curtains on the segregation of students in schools on racial lines. He held this up to show that the government took its awareness of the problem of racism to its next logical step of legal intervention with a view to getting rid of “the system of signs and symbols that signal the inferiority of blacks.” (Lawrence).
Later in his essay, Lawrence takes a strident view that the goal of ending racial oppression and racist speech would remain an empty dream unless and until the regulation of free speech becomes a reality. He argues that under the cover of free speech, racist elements tend to take a moral high ground and go on to add fuel to the fire of this burning issue, thus fanning the “rising flames of racism.” (Lawrence). He thus feels that those who blindly oppose the plea for bridling of free speech in order to halt racial oppression only help in rendering racial animosities grow stronger by the day.
Charles Lawrence has a gifted style of narration that is lucid and flowing. He writes cogently with compelling logic and felicity in expression of his ideal. He is at times hard-hitting and honest in his exposition of the realities of life as he sees it, and makes forceful pleas to eradicate the evil of racist speech.
The strong plea for regulation of free speech made by Lawrence aims at eliminating racist oppression and racist speech even at the cost of legal restrictions to the rights endowed under the First Amendment. The writer thinks that if society has not been successful in this direction for so long, then it would be futile to imagine that free speech should continue even as the fight against racism goes on. He does not buy the argument that free speech empowers all people, including the victims of racism, to express their views and problems freely. To support his view, he cites the Supreme Court, which ruled that the First Amendment could not be construed as protecting words, which “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (Lawrence). I am inclined to agree with the views of the author inasmuch as unbridled freedom of speech might rather help in entrenching racist attitudes deeper than in eradicating the evil.
In the final analysis, Lawrence roundly castigated those that opposed regulation of free speech on the facile plea that the good of the society demanded it even if it did cause injury or damage to the victims. He showed how it was inhuman to allow such racist victim groups to continue to “live and work in an environment where at any moment they may be subjected to denigrating verbal harassment and assault.” (Lawrence). He boldly solicited support for the suffering groups of students who had their voices “chilled in a climate of racial harassment.” (Lawrence). Among the many approaches to solving the problem that Lawrence suggested are the need for regulation of free speech especially in college campuses, creating better awareness among those in authority, and empowering the victims of racist speech or aggression.
Lawrence, Charles, R. “The Debates Over Placing Limits on Racist Speech Must Not Ignore the Damage It Does to Its Victims”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1989. 1-4.