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Right to Remain Silent; Duty to Speak

“You have the right to remain silent?
Fuck that right
I want the right to talk; I want the right to speak
I want the right to walk where I wanna, yell and
I’m gonna tell and rebel every time I’m on a
microphone on the stage cold illin’
The knowledge I drop will be heard by millions
We ain’t the problems, we ain’t the villains
It’s the suckers deprivin’ the truth from our children”

-Ice T, “Freedom of Speech” (1989)

Submitted for your consideration: “He was prosecuted because of his words. He didn’t harm anybody; he didn’t commit an assault; he didn’t steal; he didn’t engage in any conduct, which directly harmed someone else. So, therefore, he was punished, first and foremost, because of the words he used.”

That’s not Colorado’s Governor Bill Owens taking about Ward Churchill. These are the words of a former assistant district attorney who helped prosecute comedian/social commentator Lenny Bruce. The last line of that quote reads: “We drove him into poverty and used the law to kill him.”

The repressive wrath of state power played a major role in Bruce’s premature death…but Bruce and Churchill are but two of many who have endured the time-honored American tradition of stifling dissent.

From the Founding Father’s Alien and Sedition Act to today’s PATRIOT Act…Ice T has it right when he raps: “Freedom of speech? Just watch what you say.”

Another fine example of gagging opposition was the case of Eugene V. Debs. America’s entrance into World War I provoked a tightening of civil liberties, culminating with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Act in June 1917. This totalitarian salvo read in part: “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both.”

One year after the Espionage and Sedition Act was voted into law, Debs was in Canton, Ohio for a Socialist Party convention. He was arrested for making a speech deemed “anti-war” by the Canton district attorney. In that speech, Debs declared, “They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.”

These words led to a 10-year prison sentence and the stripping of his U.S. citizenship. (While serving his sentence in the federal penitentiary, Debs was nominated for the fifth time as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, campaigned from his jail cell, and remarkably garnered 917,799 votes.)

Some forty-odd years later in 1965, as Lenny Bruce was just beginning to wilt from the relentless heat he was facing, William S. Burroughs’ novel, “Naked Lunch” was prosecuted as “obscene” by the state of Massachusetts (soon followed by other states). First published in 1959 by Maurice Girodias and Olympia Press, “Naked Lunch” quickly became infamous across Europe…even in countries where it was banned.

Among those who served as an expert witness in defense of Burroughs and his vision was Norman Mailer (Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Eugene Hudson famously asked Mailer if any of his own novels involved “sex in the naked sense.”) The trial combined such unusual testimony with facts like the words “fuck, shit, ass, cunt, prick, asshole, and cocksucker” appearing a combined total of 234 times on 235 pages. Eventually, Hudson ruled against the book.

A year later, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” thus upholding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brennan doctrine” (the decision that cleared Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” of obscenity charges and holds that only works “utterly without redeeming value” could legally be banned). It would prove to be the last time a work of literature was prosecuted on obscenity charges in the United States.

Today we have Ward Churchill taking a hit for words of a different kind…words deemed obscene for their political weight. You may agree or disagree with his thesis and/or his method of articulating that thesis, but to support the witch hunt is to contribute to the current zeitgeist of fear and conformity. To those who call Churchill’s opinions “treasonous,” I declare that the genuine treason we Americans can engage is to accept the silencing of others (most recently Lynne Stewart) and to remain silent ourselves.

Eugene Debs had reply when the same charge of treason was leveled at him: “Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”

William Burroughs had this to say about keeping our opinions to ourselves: “Modern man has lost the option of silence.”

Lenny Bruce summed up: “Take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government’.”

MICKEY Z. is the author of several books and can be found on the Web at: http://www.mickeyz.net.

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Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.  

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