ALL THINGS CONSIDEREDby
October 28, 1992, Wednesday, October 28, 1992
Lynn Neary, host:
Writer Nat Hentoff has built a reputation as a defender of First Amendment rights. In his latest book, "Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other," he puts forth his thesis that most Americans support the right to free speech but only if they agree with what's being said. No one is above this double-standard, says Hentoff, who cites a recent incident involving Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey during a visit to New York.
Nat Hentoff (Author): Governor Casey, who is one of the more liberal Democratic governors, is however, pro-life. He was supposed to speak at Cooper Union, the Great Hall as they call it, and the subject was: Can a liberal be pro-life? And that's about as far as he got, or I got because I was supposed to introduce him. And there were various groups on the left there who regarded him as right and would not allow him to speak. It was one of the uglier scenes I've ever seen.
The interesting thing, which I--which missed me completely until I saw it in theNew York Observer, Terry Galway, who writes for them said, 'Isn't it interestingthat none of the Democratic politicians in New York, especially those who profess to be free-speech advocates, none of them said a word about Casey havingbeen--been essentially mugged in terms of speech.' Yet if--and this is what Casey said later--suppose Mario Cuomo had been in the Great Hall and a bunch of Operation Rescue people shouted him down. Would it have made the front page of The New York Times? As it is, hardly any of the dailies covered it at all.
Neary: Well, what about the right? How does the right censor the left?
Hentoff: The right censors the left by making it very dangerous in some places to read the wrong magazines, to say the wrong things. And--and you see it now probably in its most sometimes effective form in the Reverend Donald Wildmon andJesse Helms, in Phyllis Schlafly who tried to censor what they consider to be the left. And that can be anything from children's books that have too many blacks in them or--and this is the newest wrinkle which I find fascinating--there are attacks now on ready--readers, textbook readers for kids in the lower grades which have a lot of the stuff that I remember when I had a kid. You know, the fairy tales and tales of magic. They're being sued now by members of the right because they violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. That is the state shall not support or in any way approve of any one religion or of all religions. And what is the religion here? Witchcraft.
Neary: I think the problem that a lot of people have with this issue is that it doesn't allow for any greater moral value. It doesn't allow for any other criteria for deciding whether something is right or wrong. I--if they're offended by something or if they feel it's really wrong--if they have to supportfree speech it's almost as if... Hentoff: Well, that's the point. If they--if they really want to support free speech, they should answer back. Malcolm X, whom I got to know the last couple of years of his life, used to be very concerned that as he put it, 'black youngsters learn to dismystify the language.' That when epithets were thrown at them, they would not cower or--or sulk or go to somebody else, some authority to take care of the people who said those things, they would learn how to take care of those things. They would come back with a mastery of language of their own. It's a terrible thing to a student to say, 'Oh my God, you're so weak, you're so fragile that we--we're going to protect you from hearing anything that might offend you.' Instead of let's--let's educate those yo-yos who are doing this and lets you begin to learnhow to deal with that sort of stuff.
Neary: Well, how do you differentiate between private speech and public speech? If an offensive remark is made in a school setting or in a work setting, why shouldn't whoever is in charge have a right to say, 'That's unacceptable here. You simply cannot say that here.' Why shouldn't there be guidelines when there'sno other point being made except to insult someone?
Hentoff: Well, first of all, is there no other point being made? Oliver WendellHolmes said, 'every idea is an incitement.' Every word, every curse, every epithet is expressing an idea. Often a very repugnant idea. But in answer to your question, let's take the public university as a public place. I think in aclassroom that's where the professor's in charge. And I would say if I--I used to teach--if I were teaching again, yeah, I believe in First Amendment, but in my classroom you're not going to disrupt what I want to say and what I hear fromyou by--by using this language that's going to get us totally off the track.
But on the same college campus, what is said in a dorm, I don't see any reason for the kind of--I--I--I really mean stupidity, because it does nothing to end prejeudice--if you punish somebody for this kind of language, what you do is youdrive him or her underground and you make, as a friend of mine put it, 'a First Amendment martyr' out of him. Because then the other students say, 'My God, his language must have been very powerful, otherwise they wouldn't have acted.'
The thing is, you--my--my favorite story, there were four young women at ArizonaState...
Neary: I was just going to ask you about that because I think that actually is the best example in the book of what you're trying to say which is you can fightfree speech with free speech. It--it's the neatest example in a lot of ways.
Hentoff: That's right. And it worked out beautifully all the way around. But itwa--you know, it wasn't staged, it wasn't planned. These four women were--we--had been visiting somebody in the dormitory, in the residential building, they came downstairs and they saw on the door a poster. One of the most demeaning, degrading, disgusting posters you can imagine and, you know, directed at blacks. They didn't run to the administration, they ran into the room where one--one soul was still there and told him in very certain terms exactly what they thought of him and the poster. He rushed to take it down, but they didn't stop there.
They said, you know, to themselves, this is--this is not a solitary instance, there is--there is an undertone, an obbligato or racism on this campus. So theystarted holding press conferences. The NAACP chapter started having evenings ofblack history. There were all kinds of exchanges. I must say I read every one of the--the--the newspapers over a period of months and that was fascinating because everybody was going at it from five or 10 or 15 different perspectives. And finally, when it was all over, one of the young women said, 'You know, when this started--when I first saw that--that horrifying poster, I felt like a victim. But now that we've done all this, I feel empowered.' Now empowered is aphrase that is being used almost as often these days as politically correct. But this was one time when, for me anyway, the phrase really had a--a resonance to it.
Neary: Nat Hentoff. His book is called "Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee."
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