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American Journalism Review
Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   January/February 1993

Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee   

Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee
By Nat Hentoff, "HarperCollins"
The Heart Is an Instrument
By Madeleine Blais, "University of Massachusetts Press"
Virgin or Vamp - How the Press Covers Sex Crimes
By Helen Benedict, "Oxford"

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee
By Nat Hentoff
HarperCollins
406 pages; $25

Forget flag burning. Forget book banning. Forget mandatory pledges to the flag. Those are the easy cases. What's most compelling about Nat Hentoff's update on censorship is not the ongoing abuse by demagogues and ignoramuses.

Instead, the truly provocative material stems from Hentoff's uncompromising outrage at censorship as practiced by the most liberal-seeming people for the most reasonable-seeming causes, by librarians and law schools, the ACLU and the Ivy League, in the service of feminism, equality and underdogs of all pedigree.

"It is always a mistake," Hentoff writes, "to believe that the only serious danger to the Bill of Rights comes from the likes of Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, the Rev. Donald Wildmon or the Supreme Court."

A tireless First Amendment champion for a generation now, Hentoff remains an old-fashioned, Bill of Rights-thumping absolutist who condones none of the contemporary rationalizations for restricting expression. He defends workers who post pinups at the office, a professor who says "nigger" in the classroom and a Yale student who ridicules gay people with tasteless posters. He also attacks an ACLU chapter for trying to suppress a school play about religion, a waitress who tries to prevent a customer from reading Playboy and Village Voice journalists who oppose a Feiffer cartoon that used the words "dyke," "fag" and "nigger" to make a point about intolerance.

Favorite targets for Hentoff are those university speech codes meant to promote tolerance and reduce hostilities. Whether it's students who want to fly the Confederate flag, or CIA officers who want to recruit on campus, or lawyers who defend bigots, Hentoff endorses their rights and condemns "thought police" for casting a "pall of orthodoxy on the nation's campuses."

Hentoff is unyielding.

Consider, for example, the furor over whether Studs Terkel's book "Working" would be taught in the Girard, Pennsylvania, high school. The book, a collection of salty conversations with working Americans, including prostitutes and gravediggers, drew enough flak that Terkel himself showed up in Girard and won what Hentoff hails as "a grand victory for the right of students to read a book that some people in the town considered vulgar and downright filthy."

But the irrepressible Hentoff won't rest there. He switches sides. With the book burners routed, Hentoff directs his First Amendment cannon toward what he calls book forcers.

Once the Girard school board backed "Working," two fundamentalist students refused to read it, saying the book offended their religious beliefs. So the school flunked them for the course and even tried to stop them from graduating.

Hentoff drubs the book forcers with as much scorn as he does the book burners, arguing that "kids have a First Amendment right to be different, to believe differently, in the public schools." "The two boys," he concludes, "seem like heroes to me."

Hentoff's heroes, consistently, are those of any political stripe who defy political correctness and bellow out their messages however heretical to prevailing orthodoxies. To those who are offended, his advice is simple: Combat bad speech with better speech.

Every breathing journalist should applaud Hentoff's courage and conviction. Unfortunately, Hentoff's book never fully spells out his own philosophy. Although he clearly believes in a virtually absolute First Amendment, he makes his case indirectly, by approvingly quoting from other absolutists or by criticizing positions he dislikes.

About the closest he comes is in one-liners such as "The First Amendment does not make an exception for the odious" or "Once it starts to be applied selectively, no one, ultimately, will have a safe place to speak or associate."

Perhaps the matter is just that simple. But I wish Hentoff had been more eloquent in explaining why he so passionately believes that free speech should trump the harms and pitfalls that accompany it. As someone who often struggles to defend this view, I would welcome a more exacting exposition of the historical and philosophical logic of the absolutist position.

Hentoff is a columnist, and his book reads like a collection of episodes. We miss the overview. Even so, we gain a stirring reminder that, from the left as well as the right, "censor-ship..remains the strongest drive in human nature, with sex a weak second."

Briefly..

The Heart Is an Instrument , by Madeleine Blais (University of Massachusetts Press, 344 pages, $24.95). Fifteen exquisite profiles by a Pulitzer winner, mostly from the Miami Herald and Washington Post magazines. Blais writes best about society's outcasts, explaining in a concluding essay that her intense, melodious style comes from the motto: "Cut to the energy, write to the best moments."

Virgin or Vamp - How the Press Covers Sex Crimes , by Helen Benedict (Oxford, 310 pages, $25). A careful look at a tricky issue, with some specific recommendations addressed to the press. Benedict, a Columbia University professor, takes the press to task for such things as sexist language and stereotyping and makes a thoughtful argument against naming rape victims.

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