Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Playing defense for the First Amendment

These are not good times for those of us who support the first amendment. In the world of literature, a new low may have been reached in November 2006, the 50th anniversary of the publication of Alan Ginsberg's Howl. Howl, of course, was the subject of a famous 1950's court case that sought--and failed--to bar its distribution on the grounds of indecency. But fifty years later, WBAI, the long-time progressive New York public radio station, had to call off their plans to air an anniversary reading of Ginsberg's amazing poem. WBAI was afraid of incurring a financially devastating fine from the FCC for putting indecent material on the air. It's back to the future--in all the wrong ways.

And the puritans remain on the attack. The American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression (ABFFE) has alerted us to a couple of especially disturbing new laws. In Oregon, a new statute makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail to allow a minor under 13 to view or purchase a “sexually explicit” work. The law does not include a requirement that a book or magazine be judged as a whole in determining whether it is illegal; such a test may exempt works that contain only a few sexually explicit images or passages. In addition, there is no exemption for material that has serious literary artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

And a new Indiana law requires any store that sells even a single "sexually explicit" book, magazine, video or recording to register with the state and pay a $250 license fee. "Sexually explicit" is defined so broadly that the law could apply to bookstores that sell mainstream novels and other artistic works with sexual content as well as educational books about sexuality and sexual health.

ABFEE has joined groups including publishers, individual bookstores in each state, and the ACLU in filing suits opposing these laws.

The Regulator is proud to be a "dues paying, card-carrying" member of ABFEE (the back of the card says "In case of First Amendment Emergency call" and gives two phone numbers), and money you spend here helps to fund our ABFEE contribution. For more information see www.abffe.com.

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