Republicans claimed a victory for free speech when the Department of Homeland Security paused its Disinformation Governance Board after the right-wing media pushed a vicious smear campaign filled with lies and violent threats. Republicans who ban books, suppress the vote of Brown and Black people, and attack peaceful protest are not champions of free speech.
For decades, Republicans have used their speech to destroy, dehumanize, and limit our rights. I am familiar with their tactics. During the ’70s, my father distributed the pornographic movie, “Deep Throat.” The federal government during the Nixon administration prosecuted him on obscenity charges. My father lost his job as a Philadelphia stockbroker and faced jail time. The growing evangelical right-wing of the Republican Party, led by the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr., pushed for this type of legal action. Evangelicals’ crusade against pornography was intended to save our morality. They ignored the fact that you can’t legislate the morals of citizens. People may not have sympathized with pornographers as the standard-bearers for free speech but they played an important role in defending the First Amendment.
The same people who led the prosecutions against pornography in the ’70s are the DNA of today’s Republican Party. There is a dangerous resurgence of this brand of politicians who seek power by controlling speech. Books are labeled as pornography and obscene. Between July 2021 and March 2022, 1,145 books have been banned in public schools and conservative activists are censoring public libraries in Llano County, Texas and elsewhere. Right-wing Republicans in Virginia Beach sued Barnes & Noble to label the books “Gender Queer” and “A Court of Mist and Fury” as obscene and to restrict access to minors.
Prosecutions against people and establishments based on obscenity have not been successful. The courts have allowed expression and left obscenity decisions up to communities. The Supreme Court decisions in Miller v. California (1973) and Roth v. the United States (1957) created the Miller Test to determine obscenity. This test is still the standard. Court challenges to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which sought to protect children from adult speech online, were determined to be too intrusive to speech. In 2009, the Supreme Court denied the petition in ACLU v. Mukasey and upheld the Third Circuit Court’s decision that COPPA was unconstitutional.
The expansive and inclusive nature of the First Amendment is the bedrock of our country’s values and also poses our greatest challenge. Obscenity standards are subjective and communities are now online with vast boundaries. Laws protect vile speech, including lies, and our right to speak out against deplorable speech. Citizens, lawmakers, corporations, and social media companies must decide if they will support democracy and equity for all or invite racism, sexism, and censorship.
Republicans have decided and they support speech that promotes disinformation, violence and hate, and limits our rights. The consequences have been grave with the Buffalo shooting, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and many other racially motivated tragedies as proof. They want to ban books to protect children from LGBTQ stories but won’t lift a finger to ban assault weapons to keep children from being murdered at school. The erosion of other rights is apparent with the criminalization of sex work that jeopardizes people’s safety and hasn’t stopped human trafficking. In Florida, we can’t say gay. Throughout the country, women are losing control of their own healthcare and access to abortion.
We have important decisions to make in the upcoming midterm elections about which candidates we can trust to protect our rights and speech. I will certainly not trust the Republicans. The Supreme Court has radically shifted to the right. The Republican Party has embraced the use of speech for nefarious purposes. Whom we elect will determine our fate.
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