Don't Know Much

“Sicko Ants on a Crucifix”

A Connecticut newspaper has reported that a public library in Enfield, Ct. was forced last week to cancel a screening of Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary about America’s health care system. It was made clear to the library’s director, the article noted, that budget dollars, and possibly his job, were at stake. According to the report in Connecticut’s Journal Inquirer, at least one council member believes that libraries are no place for such “controversial” materials:

We want it (the library) to be a place for relaxation and fun for the kids.

Bringing to light one more depressing example in a long, sad line of stories about censorship may simply make your eyes glaze over. But this Connecticut library story comes right on the heels of the Smithsonian’s decision to pull a video, “A Fire in My Belly,” from a recent show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. because it included 11 seconds of footage of ants crawling on a crucifix.

Add these two incidents to the renewed threats to withdraw federal funding from public broadcasting by an emboldened Republican majority in the House, the attempted cancellation of an August Wilson play for its use of the word “nigger,” and the related controversy over an expurgated version –subject of a previous blog– of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Censorship is riding high. It is once again as American as apple pie, assassinations and anti-immigrant vitriol.

Perhaps this trend should come as no surprise. The last election seemed to suggest a swing to the right. Economic hard times also tend to produce a backlash against what is “unpopular” or “different.” Public funding of “controversial art” has always been a bete noire for many Republicans, evangelical Christians and some Catholics. But in a time when the political discourse includes a church group that protests at soldiers’ funerals and placing cross-hairs on political ads, the calls for censorship aren’t limited to the right side of the political spectrum.

All of these developments demand a restatement and explanation of the First Amendment. So here it is, courtesy of the American Library Association:

CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; OR ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS; OR THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE PEACEABLY TO ASSEMBLE, AND TO PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES.


Of course, there is a long litany of weighty quotes from writers and jurists about the importance of free expression in an open, democratic society. One would hope that it need not be provided to Congress or the Town Council of Enfield, Ct.

But it is this simple — a group of radicals, who wanted to overthrow the society and government that ruled them, once wrote and said some very dangerous things. Today, we keep them in the National Archives. The Founders and Framers understood with complete clarity that it is the least popular ideas and expression that need the most protection.

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