Hanging in the Balance
By Ari Lynn
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote those words in 1966 in Ginzburg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966), and they are still very relevant today. Thanks to the internet and digital technology, we live in a
world where the most graphic and explicit depictions of violence and sexuality are accessible by virtually anyone who has a computer and access to the internet: snuff films, bestiality, incest, child rape, torture. You name it, you can find it somewhere on the internet. And here in the United States of America, where we would like to believe that freedom reigns supreme, we are decades past precedent-setting legal Supreme Court decisions regarding obscenity, but to think that artists don’t still encounter hurdles while trying to express themselves is beyond naïve: it willfully aids and abets those who would rather see us revert to the ageless policies of repression and suppression.
Censorship, as it is wielded by an authoritarian power, continually confronts free expression. Too often, artists who were simply inspired to paint a picture, compose a song, or write a poem are finding themselves in the cross-hairs of suppression. The powers-that-be routinely test the legitimacy or redeeming social value of a work of art or way of thinking by subscribing it to the rigors of our constipated scales of justice. And all the while our collective freedoms and constitutional rights hang in the very balance.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by/madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn/looking for an angry fix,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly/connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,/who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat/up smoking in the supernatural darkness of/cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities/contemplating jazz…”
These very words and the nearly 3,000 more—some being considerably more explicit, mind you—that comprise Allen Ginsberg’s piece of verse, “Howl”, were the focal point of a 1957 criminal obscenity trial in the state of California. Now, more than 55 years later, there is no doubt that “Howl” is an important and valid piece of American literature, and for most the mere notion otherwise is preposterous. Obscenity and censorship have always been precariously intertwined, with a nefariously subjective lens by which a work of art or literature is deemed inappropriate, and thereby censored for the supposed betterment of the general populace. In 1973, The Miller Test was developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California and established a specific and reproducible three-part standard for evaluating whether or not something is “obscene” and worthy of censor:
- Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards“, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
- Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,
- Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Fortunately, here in Oregon, we enjoy a very liberal interpretation of laws, and a high court that continues to side with civil liberties and the freedom of speech. And while the Oregon Supreme Court case, State v. Ciancanelli, 121 P.3d 613, 339 Or. 282 (Or, 2005), declared Oregon’s obscenity laws unconstitutional, Oregon Revised Statute 167.062 still remains on the books, and therefore it’s technically illegal to, “knowingly engage in sadomasochistic abuse or sexual conduct in a live public show.” According to John Lucy, Attorney at Law, “Targeted prosecution or other sanctions in rural areas of Oregon for ‘violations’ of obscenity laws and the establishments that host performances, despite the Supreme Court ruling in Ciancanelli, are still far too common.”
In Portland, Oregon, many of us find ourselves nestled comfortably in the bosom of liberal thinking, and are nurtured by our own community to explore the outer limits of free expression. It is easy to grow complacent and to forget that many places nationally and globally are not inclined to embrace radical, sometimes revolutionary thought. Even locally there are still performers and artists who, willingly or unwillingly, find themselves thrown into situations where they are being told they can’t perform their art or are being asked to compromise their art so significantly that it alters the meaning.
In May of 2010, the Rose Festival engaged in a contract with The Circus Project to bring a bit of cirque nouveau and the aerial arts to the annual Rose Festival at Waterfront Park. Heading in to the festival, few could have imagined the resistance to a portion of the choreography that would occur. Stephanie Lopez and Gemma Adams of Night Flight Aerial Studios performed a duo aerial act, which culminated with the two women kissing in an embrace. It is routine they had performed many times before for many different types of audiences, and so it wasn’t given a second thought that they might become the subject of censorship. Rather quickly though, Jenn Cohen of The Circus Project was contacted by a producer of the Rose Festival who threatened to “cut short” the contract if the kiss wasn’t eliminated from the show, because a large number of complaints had been ladged. Mayor Sam Adams (Portland’s first openly homosexual mayor) was contacted, who contacted the Executive Director of the Rose Festival. A letter of apology was sent to Jenn Cohen from the Executive Director stating that the contract would not be cut short, the show did not have to be altered, and the opinions of that one producer did not reflect the position of the Rose Festival at large.
With so much free, unfettered access to a bigger and deeper stream of information and media than ever before available, it is far too easy—far too convenient—to grow complacent and be inclined to believe that censorship is no longer an issue. But it is. Our right and ability to express ourselves publicly comes under siege regularly, and all-too-often people find themselves defending their beliefs, their words, their actions, and their artistic endeavors. Censorship lurks around every corner waiting to weigh the relevance and signifigance of art, expression, and the freedom to live your life the that is right for you and the way you want to. Not for an instant should you be baited into believing that censorship is blasé—that it’s an issue that’s no longer relevant. Because it is. And it always will be.
In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote:
“The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty—and thus a good unto itself—but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”
We live in a country where our freedom of speech, our freedom to express our individual truth is guaranteed by the most highly-revered legal document of our land: The United States’ Constitution. This right to free speech is one of the most precious things we are guaranteed, and we should never take it for granted. In fact, we should remember on a daily basis that in order for this right to be preserved, we have to exercise it. It is our duty to confront the status quo and challenge the complacent with our words, with our actions, with our thoughts and our creativity. It is our duty to push the limits of individuals and society. It is our duty to express ourselves. In this way, and this way alone, do we ensure that this right is preserved for the future, and do we facilitate growth in others and in our society as a whole. SPEAK UP! ACT OUT!