Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where Does Obscenity End and Art Begin?

What separates free speech from obscenity? When does government have the right to prosecute an American for exercising her First Amendment right to freedom of speech?

Nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. revived the debate for readers of the Oregonian, which published his column Sept. 1 under the headline "A fine line between art and obscenity."

In his column, Pitts writes about Karen Fletcher, 56, a Pennsylvania woman who was sentenced to six months of house arrest, probation and a $1,000 fine after writing about rape, torture and the murder of children. However, her online stories were fiction, which she said she wrote as a way to cope with sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She was prosecuted under federal obscenity laws.

As Pitts notes: "... You have a woman doing a repellent thing with no discernible social value. By all available evidence, Fletcher's imagination is a garbage barge ripening under the sun. The world of arts and letters -- the world, period -- is not diminished by the loss of her work.

"On the other hand, you have a writer prosecuted -- in America! -- for something she wrote. That demands a ruminative pause if not, indeed, a full stop."

Later, Pitts poses the question: If offensiveness is reason enough to restrict free expression, then what protects the work of writers such as Stephen King ("Pet Sematary") or Vladimir Nabokov ("Lolita")?

"What is the line where obscenity ends and art begins? And who gets to say?" In the end, Pitts writes that he's not ready to trust government to decide.

This example is a great conversation starter when students and others consider the First Amendment and the freedoms it grants in our democratic society. It mirrors a discussion question tackled by students in JN201-Media and Society: Some people believe the First Amendment grants individuals and the media too much freedom of expression, what do you think?

It's often surprising how students first react to this question, and the lively discussion that ensues. I'm encouraged by the thoughtful consideration of this question by students, and the range of the debate as they consider free expression in an increasingly complex and often divided society.


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