Category Archives: censorship

howling in the wilderness

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. (Associated Press)
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the famous court ruling in defense of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” against charges of obscenity, citing the poem’s “redeeming social importance.” The Times reports how New York radio station WBAI had the idea of airing a recording of Ginsberg reading his poem to commemorate defense, but was ultimately dissuaded by its lawyers, who feared that an increasingly zealous FCC could fine the station out of existence. The poem did end up airing freely online on, where where the FCC stormtroopers have no jurisdiction. There, under the banner “Howl Against Censorship,” you can still hear it with comments by Lawrence Ferlingetti and other sages of the Beat era (there’s also a link to a full online text of the poem). Worth checking out.
What’s funny and more than a little sad about this story is its utter banality. This isn’t a drag-out battle against the thought police – ?it’s censorship drained of meaning. Because Janet Jackson accidentally let a boob fly at the 2004 Super Bowl, and a few others’ assorted lewd utterances on live TV, the humorless puritans at the FCC have knuckled down into zero tolerance mode. A few incidental curse words, not the actual substance of “Howl,” seem to be at issue here, and that’s what’s truly worrisome.
In ’57, there seemed to be something real at stake concerning free speech: not in the surface indecency of Ginsberg’s language, but in the heart of his protest and lament at the whole of American civilization. The Times quotes Ferlingetti:

Mr. Ferlinghetti, 88, who owns the landmark City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, said that when “Howl” was labeled obscene, first by United States Customs agents and then by the San Francisco police, it “wasn’t really the four-letter words.” He added, “It was that it was a direct attack on American society and the American way of life.”

If anything, this latter-day episode demonstrates how our culture is on auto pilot, that we’ve become so perfunctorily litigious in the mediation of language and symbols, that the masterpiece “Howl” might as well have been a recipe for pancakes or a wall message from MySpace. The poem’s gorgeous threat has been dulled by a larger and pervading numbness. Kudos, of course, to Pacifica for trying valiantly to break through it, but even if the poem had transmitted uncensored on FM radio, or had it been some other work, ten times as damning but without a trace of profanity, would anyone have even been awake enough to receive it?

blocked in china

I found an interesting project that performs real time tests on websites to determine wether they are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall” and I was (somewhat) surprised to find that our very own blog was filtered:
Our ideas are considered subversive by the Chinese government! We must be must be doing something right (edit: see comments below)!
Any of our readers find their own sites blocked?

free speech requires the right to quote from ALL media — not just text

Mike Stark, writing in the The Daily Kos provides a wonderfully detailed account of one man’s heroic effort to do battle with Disney as one of the principal purveyors of hate radio. In his own blog, Spocko wrote beautifully crafted pieces alerting advertisers of the vile things that were being said in their name and attached short audio clips to illustrate the point. Several advertisers pulled their ads from KSFO and Disney hit back by contacting Spocko’s ISP and his blog is now down. This is one of the clearest examples I’ve seen of why we need to establish legal precedents for the quotation of audio and video. How can we have a comprehensive and crucial discussion about our culture if we can’t quote from it.

corporate creep

T-Rex by merfam
smile for the network

A short article in the New York Times (Friday March 31, 2006, pg. A11) reported that the Smithsonian Institution has made a deal with Showtime in the interest of gaining an “active partner in developing and distributing [documentaries and short films].” The deal creates Smithsonian Networks, which will produce documentaries and short films to be released on an on-demand cable channel. Smithsonian Networks retains the right of first refusal to “commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collection or staff.” Ostensibly, this means that interviews with top personnel on broad topics is ok, but it may be difficult to get access to the paleobotanist to discuss the Mesozoic era. The most troubling part of this deal is that it extends to the Smithsonian’s collections as well. Tom Hayden, general manager of Smithsonian Networks, said the “collections will continue to be open to researchers and makers of educational documentaries.” So at least they are not trying to shut down educational uses of the these public cultural and scientific artifacts.
Except they are. The right of first refusal essentially takes the public institution and artifacts off the shelf, to be doled out only on approval. “A filmmaker who does not agree to grant Smithsonian Networks the rights to the film could be denied access to the Smithsonian’s public collections and experts.” Additionally, the qualifications for access are ill-defined: if you are making a commercial film, which may also be a rich educational resource, well, who knows if they’ll let you in. This is a blatant example of the corporatization of our public culture, and one that frankly seems hard to comprehend. From the Smithsonian’s mission statement:

The Smithsonian is committed to enlarging our shared understanding of the mosaic that is our national identity by providing authoritative experiences that connect us to our history and our heritage as Americans and to promoting innovation, research and discovery in science.

Hayden stated the reason for forming Smithsonian Networks is to “provide filmmakers with an attractive platform on which to display their work.” Yet, it was clearly stated by Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, “if you are doing a one-hour program on forensic anthropology and the history of human bones, that would be competing with ourselves, because that is the kind of program we will be doing with Showtime On Demand.” Filmmakers are not happy, and this seems like the opposite of “enlarging our shared understanding.” It must have been quite a coup for Showtime to end up with stewardship of one of America’s treasured archives.
The application of corporate control over public resources follows the long-running trend towards privatization that began in the 80’s. Privatization assumes that the market, measured by profit and share price, provides an accurate barometer of success. But the corporate mentality towards profit doesn’t necessarily serve the best interest of the public. In “Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression” (New Press, 2006), an essay by André Schiffrin outlines the effects that market orientation has had on the publishing industry:

As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind off revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do….

To meet these new expectations, publishers drastically change the nature of what they publish. In a recent article, the New York Times focused on the degree to which large film companies are now putting out books through their publishing subsidiaries, so as to cash in on movie tie-ins.

The big publishing houses have edged away from variety and moved towards best-sellers. Books, traditionally the movers of big ideas (not necessarily profitable ones), have been homogenized. It’s likely that what comes out of the Smithsonian Networks will have high production values. This is definitely a good thing. But it also seems likely that the burden of the bottom line will inevitably drag the films down from a public education role to that of entertainment. The agreement may keep some independent documentaries from being created; at the very least it will have a chilling effect on the production of new films. But in a way it’s understandable. This deal comes at a time of financial hardship for the Smithsonian. I’m not sure why the Smithsonian didn’t try to work out some other method of revenue sharing with filmmakers, but I am sure that Showtime is underwriting a good part of this venture with the Smithsonian. The rest, of course, is coming from taxpayers. By some twist of profiteering logic, we are paying twice: once to have our resources taken away, and then again to have them delivered, on demand. Ironic. Painfully, heartbreakingly so.

google gets mid-evil

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last Friday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt assured a questioner in the audience that his company had in fact thoroughly searched its soul before deciding to roll out a politically sanitized search engine in China:

We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all… We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil.

(via Ditherati)

freedom forum founder wants less freedom online

For just over four months, a biography of Freedom Forum Founder John Seigenthaler that appeared on Wikipedia,, and claimed — incorrectly — that he was once a suspect in the assasination of both John and Robert Kennedy. Last month, Seigenthaler found out about it, and he got angry. Very angry.
In fact, he got angry enough to write a November 29 editorial in USA Today complaining about Federal laws that protect online corporations like Wikiepedia from libel lawsuits and protect the anonymity of the person who published false information about him online.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s certainly a serious problem that Seigenthaler’s biography contained false information (I haven’t been able to determine yet whether the assassination rumor is an artifact of the vast Kennedy conspiracy rumor mill, or whether it was a pure invention of the phony biographer — anyone know?). And the flaws in Wikipedia are a real issue. But I’m still astonished that one of the nation’s great free speech advocates seems to be advocating systemic changes to legislation that protects not only prank speech, but political speech online.
Is it that Seigenthaler feels (but does not say) that there is a fundamental difference between print media and online? Or is this a case of someone knowing Seigenthaler’s Achille’s heel, and publishing the one rumor about him that would cause him to seemingly contradict his basic principles?