Free speech advocates claim foreign conflict threatens arts

Nathan Hall

In early February, first lady Laura Bush canceled a planned White House literary symposium after learning that many of the poets she invited planned to use the platform to protest a possible war with Iraq.

Civil libertarians and free speech advocates decry legislation recently passed by the George W. Bush administration, such as the 2001 USA Patriot Act, claiming efforts to counter terrorism have censored artists.

“Censorship is censorship no matter what the medium, whether it’s newspapers or art,” said Bobson Wong, executive director of the

nonprofit Digital Freedom Network. The New York-based organization promotes human rights through Internet technology.

“It can obviously be life-threatening for someone like a poet who is jailed for publishing a poem that criticizes the government,” Wong said. “Art censorship can also affect someone’s livelihood. Ultimately, censorship of art is a restriction on freedom of speech and expression.”

John Ockerbloom, a researcher for the University of Pennsylvania’s library, said the government also tracks controversial books. The Patriot Act requires that libraries give out information on patron activity, potentially including what patrons check out to read or request from the government.

“The U.S. government has asked that libraries destroy publications that it considers might be helpful in planning terrorist attacks,” Ockerbloom said. “Some libraries have done so; others have retained them, since I don’t believe there was an actual legal requirement to destroy them.”

Ron Brown, chairman of the Freedom of Expression Committee of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council, said customs agents often seize books before they even reach the United States.

“(Customs agents have) the arbitrary power to seize books at the border,” Brown said. “This most often occurs when a shipment of books is destined for a gay/lesbian bookstore.”

This is not the first time artistic expression has been threatened during times of foreign conflict, said artists and civil liberties advocates.

In 1942, the U.S. government sent radio broadcasters a list of temporary wartime practices that included a ban on weather forecasts and listener requests, said journalist Eric Nuzum, author of “Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.”

Nuzum spoke at the 2002 World Conference on Music Censorship in Copenhagen, Denmark, last September.

Today, a list of more than 150 “lyrically questionable” songs was included in a memo circulated by Clear Channel Entertainment, the largest owner of radio stations in the country, Nuzum said.

He said the letter encouraged programmers to use “restraint” when selecting songs for airplay in the weeks following the terrorist attacks.

“While electronic wiretapping and the boundaries of search-and-seizure laws may not excite or directly impact a large number of Americans, their ability to hear ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ does,” Nuzum said.

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