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Posts Tagged ‘civil liberty’

Keith Sampson, a university employee and student, has been charged with racial harassment for reading a book called “Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan” during his work breaks. Apparently, the mere presence of the word Ku Klux Klan offended a co-worker, despite the fact that the book is in fact about opposition to the Klan. The school’s Affirmative Action Office agreed. In a letter to Sampson, they accused him of “disdain and insensitivity” and ordered him to stop reading that book in the presence of co-workers.

Sigh… 

Update: The affirmative action office has (following the uproar?) issued a new letter to Sampson, effectively canceling its previous order and making a complete retreat from its earlier position.  

Further Update.

— 

Also read:
Don’t Glock in school.
Did you use the word?

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No, she has not gone on a cruise. Not yet, anyway. Her father is keeping a tight leash.

Mr. Eardley, an attorney who claims to represent Brit, says that her civil rights are being violated.

As he argues in the papers, Britney Spears is not being allowed to visit her friends, to use phones, or to hire an attorney of her own choosing. Michael Sands has compared this situation to the cases of suspected terrorists who were detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without benefit of counsel as facing similar civil rights violations.

To most, the idea of comparing Britney’s situation (kept an effective prisoner at home by her concerned parents) to those suffering at Guantanamo might seem a bit far-fetched. Yet at its heart, the fundamental issue is the same. The loss of all freedom and the deprivation of due process. There is nothing more humiliating, more painful. And may I add, more counter-productive.

There is no doubt Britney’s antics have been ridiculous. There is no doubt that her bizarre behavior has raised serious concerns about her mental well-being. There is no doubt that she has acted over the past several months in a manner that most of us agree is immature at best and self-destructive at worst.

Yet, Britney is well enough to perfectly understand the meaning of freedom, and consequently, to crave it. She might be a spoilt irrational girl, possibly even suffering from bipolar disorder, but by no means is she mentally incapacitated. She might be a bad driver, but she has not yet been ruled by her psychiatrist or the court to be a “danger to others”. She might be an irresponsible spendthrift, but hell, it is her money!

It is time we let others be. It is time we agree that there is no objective meaning to the phrase “best interests” beyond the individual’s wishes. It is time we realise that our concern at another adult behaving in a manner that seems self-destructive does not give us the right to take over her life without her present or (at the very least) prior consent.

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A hundred years ago, you could be arrested if your drawing, writing or other form of creative expression was considered obscene by the authorities. Artistic freedom was not as important as preserving public morality. And the idea that a century on, pornography could be displayed and sold in perfectly legal shops was unthinkable.

For good or bad, those times are far behind us. One of the greatest jewels of the United States is her First Amendment, a piece of law enshrined in her constitution and systematically strengthened by the courts through the last century – that guarantees the freedom of expression for all. In modern day USA you can depict anything and not worry about the moral police coming after you. Of course you can still be charged if your work is libelous or directly incites violence or violates someone else’s rights. But other than that, the idea that someone can be put in jail simply for expressing distasteful thoughts or fantasies is preposterous. This is a free country, right?

Wrong.

Karen Fletcher, a reclusive woman living in Pittsburgh, recently began posting short stories on the Internet that describe, in graphic detail, the sexual abuse of children – in order, she says, to cope with her own history of childhood abuse. The internet abounds in pornography, much of it visual. Fletcher’s stories had no illustrations, were obvious works of fantasy, and were not displayed publicly. The only way to read these stories was by paying a modest sum of ten dollars a month, so that – Fletcher says – she could she could keep the website running and also protect children (and unwilling adults) from accessing it. Yet those stories, read by about 29 paying subscribers, have made Fletcher one of the few people facing federal criminal charges for obscenity.

In many ways, Fletcher’s case is unusual. A obscenity charge is rare these days, and almost unheard of in situations where no one has been harmed in the making of the offending material. And a case like Fletcher’s, which involves only the written word, has not been successfully prosecuted in the last thirty five years in this country.

So if this case feels like a throwback to the dark ages, it indeed is. But it should not be viewed in isolation. Recent years have witnessed an increasing clamping down on civil liberties in the US, accompanied by the passage of the Patriot Act, draconian anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime laws and an atmosphere of extreme political correctness. This particular case seems to be an example of the Bush administration’s efforts to cater to the religious right and reinvigorate the Obscenity Act. It is a long, slippery slope. Once a certain level of freedom becomes unacceptable, the bar is lowered and the next act of censorship is not only easier but also more extreme. Intolerance begets greater intolerance and by the time you realise the value of what you have lost, it is too late. Once these freedoms are gone, the wheels of motion are much harder to turn in the opposite direction. Illiberality and offended sensibilities make for excellent political nourishment. Those of us from India will attest to that.

It is possible that Karen Fletcher will not be convicted. If she is, God save us all.

The case is now over, see update (5/21/08)


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