The Saturday Skinny: Are we Limiting Press Freedom in the Right Ways?

To round out my first weekly blog theme, I have chosen to prepare a short, contemplative post about the freedom of the press. Originally designed to protect traditional news outlets like daily papers, magazines, Television news broadcasts, and radio content from government censorship, the media if often referred to as the fourth branch of government, and in theory, serves a “watchdog” function to prevent government tyranny and to provide checks and balances against government corruption. With the media now rapidly expanding to include things like social media, entertainment, and a host of other publicly disseminated information, I want to take just a moment out of my Saturday morning to discuss the limits of press freedom. I do believe that there SHOULD be limits. I will even go so far as to say that the freedom of the press shouldn’t be a right, but is rather a privilege that can, and often is, abused. For that matter, I would even go so far as to say that we shouldn’t have Constitutional rights, but instead should have constitutional privileges. Rights are inalienable – privileges are not. For instance, if a convicted felon can lose his right to vote, then it really isn’t a right at all. It is a privilege to be lost. To draw the correlation, if the press does not fulfill its duty to serve the best interests of the people, then those members of the media should lose their “privilege” of free press. For the remainder of this post, I want to narrow my scope to discuss press freedom in the context of the entertainment industry. I don’t have to tell you that there are several restrictions on what entertainers can and cannot say on television, radio, and other mass mediums. But recently I’ve been asking myself the following question: Are we really censoring the right things? Below are three examples of how the U.S. entertainment industry is getting censorship wrong:

  1. Cursing – within my lifetime, I have noticed a significant relaxation in the about of “cursing” that appears to be acceptable to be included in cable and network entertainment prime time programming. There are still, however, some phrases that are censored in ways that are not only ineffective, but that just don’t make sense. For instance, if someone calls someone an “asshole” on television, the term is usually censored. But only half of it. “Ass” is completely acceptable, but when combined with the word “hole,” it seems to be problematic. So the solution to this problem? “Ass(bleep).” Not only is this completely ineffective, but it seems like the FCC is just a little (and by that I mean absurdly) misguided in what part of that phrase is the most offensive. Here’s another one for you: “God-damn it.” The solution to this inappropriate phrase? “(Bleep) Damn it.” Once again, anyone with a clue can fill in the blank, but more importantly than that, it seems like the concern is once again placed on the wrong part of this phrase.

 

  1. Nudity – America is ashamed of the human body. With very few exceptions (Kate Winslet’s single-breast exposure in Titantic being one of the more notable ones), most motion pictures that depict nudity other than a brief display of a person’s rear-end is automatically designated as Rated R. I bring this up not because I believe that NBC should start airing porn after America’s Got Talent, but because we remain over-sensitized to nudity while being under-sensitized to violence and “less graphic” forms of sexuality. A few years ago, a show appeared on a major network channel entitled “Swingtown.” It is about exactly what it sounds like: A group of neighbors who engaged in swinging – a lifestyle in which they have sex which each other’s spouses. There wasn’t any nudity that I recall, but there was plenty of moaning and glorification of promiscuity, which I argue is just as problematic for young viewers to be exposed to. More recently, shows such as “Mistresses” and “WifeSwap” seem to contribute to our society’s desensitization of sex more than any Playboy I’ve ever looked at.

 

  1. Violence – The media is saturated with it. One day when I was teaching a lecture on media law to some of my former students, I was explaining to them the legal difference between obscenity and indecency, two terms that refer exclusively to sexual content in the media. A student of mine raised her hand and asked the following question: “Why can something only be considered obscene or indecent if it sexual. What about the pictures of mutilated bodies that we see on the news and on the internet on a daily basis, and what about films and TV shows that feature more murders, tortures, and blood than you seen on the streets of Compton in a week?” I’m not usually caught off guard, but I was this time. I simply had to respond by saying “you make a great point.” And she did. The jury is still out whether media violence contributes to actual violence, but it seems like until more is known about media effects, we might be better off erring on the side of caution. We are, in my opinion, overly cautious about exposing our youth to sex and nudity, but much less concerned about exposing them to violence on the 6 o clock news and beyond.

If you like what I wrote, I encourage you to share this blog with your friends, colleagues, or anyone else who may find it interesting. If you don’t like what I write, then I INSIST that you comment, criticize, and put me in my place. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

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I am Whatever I Say I am: Gender Conformity at the SC DMV

While some people may not be fully aware of all that is protected by the First Amendment, I feel safe making the assumption that anyone reading this blog is intimately familiar with the Amendment’s protection of free speech. Taken literally, this means that that a person residing in the United States can say or write anything without being censored or prosecuted by the Federal Government. Anyone with at least some knowledge of constitutional law, however, will be quick to note that this right is not absolute. Restrictions have been placed upon this amendment through a series of Supreme Court rulings. I will speak on the legitimacy of a few of these restrictions later in the week, but for now I want to also point out that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the first amendment has also EXPANDED the freedom of speech beyond written or spoken language to include symbolic gestures, the most famous of which is probably flag burning. Because symbolic speech has been deemed protected under the first amendment, the freedom of expression is, at least in the eyes of the law, synonymous with the freedom of speech. The expansion of the first amendment in this way has prompted a number of legal cases to test the limits of this expansion. As a matter of fact, I recently heard of a story in which a person driving on the highway flashed his brights to oncoming traffic to warn them of an impending speed trap. That driver was pulled over and charged with obstruction of justice. However, the driver pleaded not guilty on the ground that the law forbidding driver’s to warn others of police activity violated his first amendment rights, claiming that the act of flashing his brights should be protected as a form of symbolic speech. Admittedly, I do not know if and how this case turned out, but I share the story to prove that the meaning of the First Amendment remains highly contested in contemporary culture.

For today’s post, I want to explore the relationship between the First Amendment and a person’s identity. The inspiration for this post can be traced back to a news story I read last month about a South Carolina teen by the name of Chase Culpepper who was forced to remove “his” make-up before in order to have his driver’s license photo taken. You can read the entire story here.

Essentially, the DMV cited a policy that states that a driver’s license photo will not be taken if it determined that the person is wearing a disguise that could confuse law enforcement officers from properly identifying the individual. According to Culpepper, the DMV employee stated that he could not wear his makeup in the photograph because, since he is biologically dedicated as a male, he does not “look like a boy should.”

It doesn’t take much analytical work to realize the patently absurd nature of the DMV’s policy. The way their policy is articulated, it appears that their chief concern is that the individual in question is trying to obscure his identity in an effort to confuse law enforcement officials in the case that he gets pulled over or has any other run-in with the law which would make it necessary for the police to correctly identify “him.” There is just one problem with this justification. Culpepper regularly dresses in female clothing and wears make-up as part of his everyday appearance. With this being the case, it seems like making him “look like a boy” in his official ID while he normally presents as a female would actually INCREASE the difficulty of law enforcement to properly identify Culpepper. While one may not have much control over their biological sex (short of having a sex-change operation), it is important to remember that sex and gender are NOT the same thing. A person doesn’t choose which genitalia with which they are born – it is etched into their biological coding. However, gender is widely understood as a social construct, and as such, it constitutes an expression of how one chooses to identify.

It is at this point that I advance the following argument: Identity is not a static state of being. It is a fluid, performative expression of how an individual interprets who they are as a person at a given point in time. Tying a person’s identity to their biological profile, in my view, is extraordinarily problematic. Identity is fluid, and subject to change. To use a personal example, I have had black hair, blonde hair, brown hair, and a mohawk throughout my years of trying to decide who I want to be. I’ve had a shaved head, and I’ve had hair almost down to my shoulders. I’ve weighed 105 pounds at one point in my life, and 195 pounds at another. I don’t really look like I do in my Driver’s license photo. So if that is the case, then what is to stop DMV officials from demanding that you maintain a consistent physical appearance for the sake of easy identification?

Now the link between identity and the First Amendment may not be immediately clear, so let me explain. If a person is not allowed to express their identity, then I see no other way but to deem the actions of the South Carolina DMV as a violation of Culpepper’s First Amendment rights. Just because he has a penis does not in any way mean that he must abide by the gender norms associated with the male sex. He is free to construct his own gender, or to resist those constructions all together.

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t flaws in my logic. For instance, in my last post, I alluded to the fact that someone’s identity may not be a choice. For instance, it is very difficult for me to get on board with the notion that gays and lesbians choose their sexual identity. This case, however, is a little different. He does not claim to be a part of one gender category or the other. So it is expression of his identity that is at the center of the controversy. Whether or not his gender non-conformity is a choice or not is not really the issue at hand anyways. After we wade through all the bullshit, it is clear that the South Carolina DMV’s policy is not to prevent people from wearing “disguises,” but instead to impose an identity upon a person based on societal gender norms, effectively denying a person’s expression of their identity. It is an undeniably discriminatory policy, and I hereby petition the South Carolina DMV to allow Culpepper to retake his photograph by indentifying as “he” chooses.Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to comment!

Bible Thumping Below the Belt: The Case of Gordon College

This blog is designed to be controversial. I am not here to play nice. I am here to do what I have been scared to do for several years – to speak my mind, to provoke reactions, both positive, negative, and everywhere in between. I will never apologize for what I write, but I will not be dogmatic. Sometimes I will be right, and other times I will be wrong. I will probably change my mind on certain issues. If I wasn’t willing to be wrong or to be challenged in my beliefs, then I wouldn’t share them. I aim to be provocative – I want to cause arguments more than I want to win them. Why? Because I feel like leaving my mind open to change is the only way I will grow as a scholar, as a citizen, and as a person. With that being said, I view this blog as my contribution to the marketplace of ideas – for people to think about issues from my perspective as well as to react to those issues from their perspective. Therefore, this blog will only be successful if people react to it. So please, do not worry about offending me, because I’m not worried about offending you. I look forward to engaging in enlightening debates and dialogue with anyone who feels compelled to respond!
With that being said, I will go ahead and dive in head first with my first weekly theme: Contemporary Issues Concerning First Amendment Rights

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees to the U.S. people several freedoms. For today’s post, I focus on the freedom of religion in the wake of the recent Supreme Court case known popularly as the “Hobby Lobby” decision. This decision allows “closely held” faith-based companies to deny insurance coverage for contraceptive services and products to its employees on the grounds that such a requirement would infringe on that company’s religious freedom. This Supreme Court decision, which was decided along highly partisan lines, is proof that the “corporations are humans” doctrine is beginning to spiral out of control.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the implications of the Hobby Lobby decision has implications that are already starting to extend past restrictions on contraceptive coverage. In particular, Obama’s executive order that bans employers who receive federal funding from discriminating against people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community during the hiring process has come under intense scrutiny. As an educator and a former employee of a private, Christian University, I was particularly troubled when I found out that Gordon College, a private school near Boston, is seeking exemption from this executive order on the grounds that it violates the institution’s freedom of religion. Although most private institutions of higher learning do not receive federal funding and therefore are not subject to Obama’s executive order, Gordon College does receive funding due to a contract it has with federal government, and therefore would be prohibited from using a prospective employee’s sexual orientation as a basis for denying them employment.

This case obviously raises a host of issues. For starters, it has reignited the perennial debate over the separation of church and state. It also provides a locus for the ongoing debate over whether sexual orientation should be a protected population along with race, ethnicity, sex, national origin, and religion (which is ironic for reasons I will discuss in another post). While an investigation of these issues in the context of this case are certainly deserving of attention, I want to turn my focus to another aspect of this controversy: to the way that Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay responded to the understandable backlash against his petition to exempt the college from the executive order. In a statement issued earlier in July, Lindsay made the following remarks which can be found on the Gordon College website. Here, I will quote just a couple of passages that appeared in bold print:

“Signing the letter was in keeping with our decades-old conviction that, as an explicitly Christian institution, Gordon should set the conduct expectations for members of our community. Nothing has changed in our position.”

In my mind, this statement alone is hard to argue with. I disagree with the notion that people who identify as gay, lesbian, or not “straight” should be excluded from participating in Christian-sanctioned institutions, but that is a matter of opinion. As a private institution, I do have to concede that Gordon College is well within their rights to create their own criteria for hiring its employees. There is just one catch – they shouldn’t expect to receive federal funding, as that would create a situation in which the government is forced to support an institution’s religious freedom at the expense of a citizens religious freedom. The freedom of religion, I argue, also entails the freedom FROM religion, or the freedom to not be Christian if that is one’s preference. The federal government should not support institutions which force its employees to conform to the character traits that are dictated by religious doctrine.

But Lindsay doesn’t stop there. Toward the end of his letter, he makes a rather puzzling statement:

“We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now.”

So what exactly does this mean? If the GLBTQ community represents a “category” of individuals, then why does Lindsay feel compelled to seek the right to deny them employment in the first place?
The answer to this question comes in the following sentence:

“As long as a student, a faculty member, or a staff member supports and lives by our community covenant documents, they are welcome to study or work at Gordon.”

The rhetoric here is telling, and admittedly quite clever. It implies that “categories” of people pertain to a population’s identity. However, this quote seems to suggest that homosexuality is not an identity, but rather is a chosen behavior or lifestyle. Therefore, under Lindsay’s interpretation, he is not discriminating against the way someone “is,” but rather the way they choose to be.
For my part, I find this insinuation to be problematic. Even George H.W. Bush, when asked whether he thought homosexuality was a choice, responded by simply stating that he did not really know. And I don’t think there is a way to really ever answer that question. It is an issue that is between God and his people, and not for other person to decide. Christianity, to me, has always been about love and compassion – not about exclusion and discrimination.

Of course, there is much more to this case than what I have presented. For instance, why is it that homosexuality is singled out? What about unwed mothers, people who have pre-marital sex, or people who have used the Lord’s name in vain? These are issues for another day, but for now I want to conclude by exposing how Lindsay’s letter calls into question one of the major principles of the college’s mission that he set forth in his inaugural address, which is to “stretch the minds” of students. With Lindsay’s anti-gay attitude, it seems like he has already failed his own commitment.
Since the letter, the Mayor of Salem, Massachusetts ended Gordon College’s contract to manage the city’s Old Town Hall. I admire this action, but wish that Lindsay would have ended the contract himself instead of trying to have his cake and eat it too.