Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Public versus Private: Censorship in America

Often, a particular value, action, image, or even word will be deemed "unacceptable" in the public arena, such as nudity or sexual activity.  Others are so abhorrent, such as murder, that they're unacceptable anywhere at any time.  In the United States of America, however, an idea is practically never taboo, and the very first rights guaranteed in our Constitution include the right to express our ideas.  Murder depicted in a movie, for example, is acceptable, though many may choose not to watch such a movie.  As long as the expression of those ideas does not conceivably infringe on the rights of others, they are hardly ever challenged.  Several things I've read and seen today, though, illustrate the problems with ensuring that one person's rights do not infringe on another's.

The first was a news report on the Westboro Baptist Church's protest near the funeral of a fallen soldier.  Though the soldier himself was not gay, the church members argue that "U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for Americans' immorality, including tolerance of homosexuality and abortion."  Their protest, and the suggestion that Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder is going to Hell for "enabling" homosexuals, so angered the Marine's father, Albert Snyder, that he sued them in court and won a $5 million verdict.  The church appealed, saying they stayed outside the funeral and merely engaged in a general religious protest against gays in the military.  The case has finally made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices are currently debating whether the right to free speech in this case infringed the rights of the family to grieve in peace.  As of this posting, no ruling has been issued.

It reminds me of the case of the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero in New York City.  The grief over the deaths of thousands on 9/11 is still very real and very painful for many, but the planners and supporters of the project argue that shouldn't overwhelm freedom of religion.  Common sense would seem to dictate they simply build it somewhere else without making a fuss, but, as many have asked, how far away is "far enough"?  The same question exists in this potential ruling:  will the high court rule that they were "far enough" from the funeral?  Will religious freedom trump personal pain?  And if the court should rule for the family, what ramifications will that have for others who seek to freely express their own religion, such as Muslims in New York City?

The second piece was written by the entertainment magazine Movieline yesterday on the anniversary of the advent of the NC-17 movie rating.  This replaced the earlier X-rating for movies deemed by the industry to be too extreme, in one way or another, for children to see even with parental supervision.  The article has an unforgiving stance on the rating itself, believing it to be a contributing factor in the box office failures of so many movies that received the rating.  They're probably right, though it may have more to do with the presence of the "objectionable content" itself.  The rating system itself is seen as a form of censorship, with the NC-17 rating attaching a sort of death knell to any movie that receives it.  Oddly enough, Hollywood itself is often criticized as a place where morals go to die.  It's ironic, I suppose, that they should be accused of trying to impose morals surreptitiously through ratings.

This isn't so much an example of censorship as it is an example of how personal choice comes into play when it comes to a society's values.  People go to movies to be entertained, and occasionally enlightened.  The rating system, theoretically, gives them a greater sense of what sort of entertainment they can expect to find and what sort of content they might want to avoid.  It's been so successful over the years that TV shows have gotten into the act, as well as video games and even some books.  People in general, and myself in particular, appreciate knowing more about the book or movie on which they're about to spend their time and money; it's why movie reviewing as industry has thrived for so long.  The rating system doesn't remove anyone's choices or freedom, no matter how it may affect the ticket sales of a specific movie; it in fact gives us a greater capacity to choose by giving us more information.

What movie you choose to see, like what book you choose to read, is a personal, private choice.  However, some books and movies are imposed on us in the public arena, such as in public schools.  That brings us to the third item I read today, the story of a school teacher named Risha Mullins.  Ms. Mullins is a teacher with a profound love of reading.  She created "literature circles" for her students to increase their interest in reading, but the books provided weren't that successful.  Instead, she bought a bushel of young adult literature, and the students quickly became enamored with the program.  Not only did the program grow to over a hundred students in the first year and a half, but the test and reading scores among the students also rose significantly.

However, some of the books that were chosen caught the attention and ire of some of the parents.  Certain themes, such as homosexuality, caused a backlash that snowballed over the next year, culminating in Ms. Mullins losing her job.  Many across the country became aware of her situation when, among others, some of the authors whose books the students were reading came to her defense.  However, she never intended for her struggle to become a national issue.  Her only objective, from the beginning, has been to improve the education of her students.

I had an experience one year in high school. My teacher wanted to show an uneditted version of "Braveheart" to our English class, but since we were all under 18, she had us get permission slips from our parents first. My mother sent a letter in to the school and had the video pulled. It wasn't a huge deal; no one got fired or anything. It was simply an example of one parent's ideology versus one teacher's.  I appreciate what my mother did, since I know she, like the parents who involved themselves in the Mullins debacle, only wanted what was best for her children.  That doesn't always need to lead to a contest of wills or result in people losing their jobs.  For the most part, we're all trying to do the "right thing", though we may disagree over what that is.

America, in attempting to be a "big tent", has welcomed a host of people who refuse, for whatever reason, to get along with each other. In our private lives, we're allowed to watch what we want, attend whatever church we want (or not), and read whatever books we choose. In the public arena, though, you can't do anything without the approval of the whole. That's why so many people hate Congress at any given time; because it very often moves forward with laws and initiatives that we pay for, whether we approve of them or not.  It's the same case with public education; we don't want teachers being paid with our tax dollars to teach something we don't want our children to learn.

In the case of Ms. Mullins, the public school system is the only "bad actor" I can see. The teacher just wanted to teach the children; the parents just wanted to protect them.  It's the school's job to mediate the disputes. They should have defended their own, who as it turns out was one of their best. They should have offered the parents the simple choice to opt their children out of reading certain books.  I don't like to make judgments without all the facts, but I'm certain there was a better way to handle this situation than the way in which it was.

I'm often torn on the subject of public school programs. They're slaves to a system that oftens fails them and the children who attend them. On the other hand, the public schools I attended were first-rate and graduated hundreds of students each year, many with honors. I sometimes wonder if private schools would be better, or even homeschooling, since the education of children is primarily the responsibility of the parents. However, especially today, we can't expect parents to do everything themselves.  So teachers are expected to be babysitters as well as educators, watching over dozens of children at a time, helping them learn, but not conflicting with the wishes of the parents in any case.  It's not an enviable task.

My heart goes out to this teacher, whose own heart certainly seems to be in the right place.  I also pray for the family of Matthew Snyder, whose life ended so abruptly and whose absence I'm sure will be felt for years to come.  Censorship has the power to protect families like the Snyder family; but it also has the power to destroy careers, like Ms. Mullins'.  It's no wonder the Supreme Court is taking so much time to deliver a ruling.

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