Local series spotlights freedom of speech and its responsibility

Local series spotlights freedom of speech and its responsibility

First Amendment rights are what Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, says are the blue collar amendments.

“You don’t need a lot of the other amendments every week, [or] every day,” Policinski said of the five basic freedoms falling under the First Amendment umbrella: assembly, speech, religion, petition and press.

It was that last freedom that brought him to Pittsburgh, where he spoke last week at Rodef Shalom Congregation on “Freedom of Speech: What’s the Cost?” Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the Holocaust Center, his appearance came as part of a continuing legal education program.

Although the event was planned months ago, PAJC executive director Karen Hochberg pointed to recent events as proof that Policinski’s message is as relevant as ever.

“Given the horrific events in France tied to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the increasing worries about the government’s intrusion in our lives, this issue is now front and center,” Hochberg said during an interview before the Jan. 22 talk at Rodef Shalom.

“We hope to use this renewed interest to discuss many topics including the role and responsibility of the media as the watchdog of freedom, [and] learn whether our media is under assault from our government.”

In actuality, the discussion became a legal and moral debate.

Policinski, who has a wealth of professional media experience, graduated from law school but isn’t a lawyer. He noted that American media does not do satire like in Europe and illustrated his point with another case of an inflammatory cartoon.

In 2005, on the heels of a Danish paper printing an illustration of the Prophet Muhammad, he received a phone call at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. On the other end, a French journalist was livid with America and asked Policinski why outlets in the States wouldn’t reprint the cartoon in favor of free speech.

“Just because we have the right to do it,” Policinski said, “we don’t have to do it.”

Freedom of speech means taking the good with the bad, he said, and from the exposure, gaining insight and better footing on how to then publicly oppose a person who is repugnant.

“We so ardently believe in the right of every one of us to express an idea,” Policinski said of his thoughts on enduring the pain of abhorrent views so that society can then find comfort. “[It’s] the best system we have for self-correction.”

Local writer and comic book historian Wayne Wise, who presented at the following morning’s continuing legal education workshop, said the openness of what Policinski speaks of is true in Wise’s art form as well.

“I pretty much take freedom of speech for granted when I’m writing,” Wise said during an interview before the event. “Obviously, violence against creators or anyone for speaking their mind, whether this violence is real or simply threatened, is way over the line. As creators, as people, we will all occasionally find ourselves in the position of defending the right to exist in things we personally find distasteful.”

But, he said, an eye for an eye won’t solve any issues.

“In extreme cases the first inclination is to silence the opposing view,” Wise said. “Out of sight, out of mind. The problem with that solution is it’s the first step toward fascism; any worldview worth its time needs to be able to stand up to questioning alternative points of view.

“The moment one form of genuine freedom of speech is curtailed,” he added, “it opens the doors to all forms of expression to be curtailed.”

Hochberg hopes that Jewish and non-Jewish attendees will have a greater understanding of the freedom of speech following the two-day event.

“PAJC feels that as American Jews we must use our political voices to protect the rights and freedoms so many sacrificed,” Hochberg said. “As Jews, it is a part of nature embedded in our souls to take action to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans.”

With freedom of speech, Hochberg said, comes responsibility.

“Judaism cautions against lashon hara. Jews understand that words can be weapons,” Hochberg explained. “Civility in dialogue means being informed and respectful when we choose to speak.”

Policinski said that at a recent conference in Nashville, a panel about the media covering Islam revealed the difficulty of carefully choosing words. An audience member stood up to address her concerns surrounding unfair advantages for Muslim women in jails who are able to wear their hijabs behind bars. Using his First Amendment rights background, Policinsky spoke up, stating that nuns and priests who are arrested are allowed to wear their garb while incarcerated. The audience member huffed, “That’s different.”

“I fear the well-meaning person,” Policinski said of what he called the Bill of Rights safety valve, which would be compromised slowly but surely if people continuously adjust the laws around the freedom of speech, and with it, reaction to their actions. “[Freedom of speech] does not protect you from the judgment or ramifications of expressing your view.”

Bee Schindler can be reached at beeschindler@gmail.com.