The attacks in Paris have led to massive demonstrations and plenty of pronunciations supporting free speech. While the motives of some of these protestors and their actual commitment to freedom of speech are open to question, I am glad to see such an impressive response to the attacks. This also had me thinking about some (less violent) cases in this country where freedom of expression has been challenged.
The free speech movement was perhaps the first political movement I ever got behind, one that stood at the beginning of my political journey to the left in my teen years. At the turn of the 90s the forces of the Religious Right had been in power long enough to really flex their muscles. Albums I wanted to buy were forbidden to me because of the imposing black and white "Explicit Lyrics" stickers. (I had a friend dub a copy of Fear of a Black Planet as a result.) Authorities in Cincinnati tried to shut down a Robert Maplethorpe exhibit and Jesse Helms fulminated against the "obscene" art supposedly funded by the NEA. In terms of political expression, president George HW Bush championed a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. While I never had any intention to burn the flag, I found the notion of having an amendment banning a certain political expression to be ridiculous and small minded in the extreme.
The same went for a lot of the "explicit music" out there. I was a good little Catholic boy, and so found a group like the 2 Live Crew to be repugnant. My proto-feminist dislike of music in general that disrespected women also got tripped off whenever I heard kids in school reciting the group's lyrics. (This is the same reason I didn't really care for the hair metal bands of the era.) That being said, I came within a hair's breadth of buying the cassingle for "Banned in the USA," which at the time was probably the most political song on MTV. As much as I disliked Luther and the rest of the crew, I thought the small-minded Bible thumpers who sought to ban their music and their performances to be a whole lot worse.
I listened to song last night for the first time in almost a quarter century, and was struck by how dated it sounded, from the on the nose style of the MCs to the cheap-sounding synthesizers. It's enough to make you question any nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hip Hop. At the same time, Luke's speech near the end still gets me a little fired up, and the use of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is pretty brilliant. In the twilight of the Reagan-Bush reaction it was a welcome breath of dissent.
Just as I didn't care for the 2 Live Crew, I am also not a fan of Charlie Hebdo's version of satire, which looks chock full of racism and Islamophobia, as far as I can tell. As much as I dislike some of the cartoons I've seen, those that strive stifle expression they don't like, whether it be through the law or violence, are a million times worse. I can only hope that the expressions of "Je Suis Charlie" are truly an acknowledgement that freedom of speech should be valued, even when we don't like the speech itself. Time will tell if those in the streets are not just as likely to suppress the things that they don't like.