Censorship and the First Amendment: The American Citizen\'s Right to Free Speech


Are we protected from censorship under the First Amendment? In other
words do individuals or groups have the right or the power to examine material
and remove or prohibit anything they consider objectionable? This argument has
been progressing for centuries, in fact the first notable case was against John
Peter Zenger, in 1743. Zenger was an editor of a New York colonial newspaper
that often published articles critical of the colonial governor. He
successfully argued that publishing the truth should be a defense and thus
defied the conventional wisdom and ended colonial intrusion into freedom of the
press (Harer 21). Since that case, the progression through time has expanded
matters to the complicated issues we see today. The founders of the United
States government tried to protect this liberty by assuring a free press, to
gather and publish information without being under control or power of another,
in the First Amendment to the Constitution. So why do we need to be concerned
if we, as citizens, have been properly protected under the constitution? Our
concerns occur, on account of special interest groups that are fighting to
change the freedom of expression, the right to freely represent individual
thoughts, feelings, and views, in order to protect their families as well as
others. These groups, religious or otherwise, believe that publishing
unorthodox material is an abuse of free expression under the First Amendment.
As we will come to find, our Supreme Court system plays an exceedingly important
role in the subject of free speech and expression. As well as, understanding
that the court system is the nucleus of the construing our First Amendment
rights.
First we must focus on the motivation and foundations behind these
individuals attempting to challenge the right to free speech. There are various
reasons given for censorship: in a classroom or library they may restrict or ban
a book or other learning resource because it includes social, political, or
religious views believed to be inappropriate or threatening. A movie or
television program may be considered violent, or obscene because of nudity or
indecent behavior. A song or speech may contain language thought to be vulgar,
or ideas and values that some consider objectionable. Furthermore, a group may
edit or withhold a newspaper story from publication because they may judge it as
a threat to national security. All though these examples are valid motivations
for censorship, initiating these steps would unveil a censorship disaster. It
is my view that this action would cause a national uprise of interests groups,
as well as the individual, demanding that every division of published
information be censored.
We must identify exactly who these individuals are that want these items
censored. Looking at all levels of American citizens, some are legislators on a
local, state, and even federal level. Others are members of boards or
committees, organized to review books, films, or other forms of communication on
behalf of a community. Occasionally the censors are teachers, librarians, or
school administrators, who determine that a book or a classroom item may not be
suitable for the students. Often censors are parents, members of religious
groups, or just citizens who are concerned about the presence of indecent or
improper material in their schools, libraries, theaters, book stores, television,
and else where in the community. These individuals are concerned with indecent
or improper material in their communities.
Shifting to the opposite view on this topic, there are those individuals
that oppose the power to censor. There are members of society that believe in
the freedom to speak publicly and to publish. This is a basic belief in the
freedom of expression and is to be protected by the First Amendment to the
Constitution. On the eve of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, the first
wave of a nationwide survey, comprising more than 1,500 citizens was conducted.
Through this survey it was found that Americans rate free speech as their second
most precious First Amendment right and regard a free press highly in the
abstract (Wyatt 87). This amendment states: Congress shall make no laws
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there
of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of people
peaceably to assemble, and petition the government for a redress of grievances
(Lowi A24). Although there are strong cases made for and against censorship,
the rising trend calling for censorship can threaten our basic rights to free
expression and the right to be informed. At the center of the debate is the
First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantee\'s our