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Yasser Arafat—Legacy or Lunacy?

Israel: No Peace, No Process?

The Israeli Press Reacts to the Road Map: Bumpy Road Ahead

The Israeli Press Reacts to the Prisoner Exchange with Hizbollah

Israel’s Security Fence—Back To The Wall

A Woman President in the White House?

New York Stories:
Freedom of Speech

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9/11—Tilting at Windmills

German Press on Iraq:
Front Line Berlin

Bush Takes On Europe—Again

A European in New York

Jewish Lawyers Defending Anti-Semites?

Cooperation and Competition — American Jewry and Israel's Development

In Memoriam Yehuda Amichai

In Memoriam Hildegard Knef

2000... And the Emperor Still Has No Clothes

 

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Home Page > Articles in English > New York Stories > Freedom of Speech

Next article: Reminiscing 9/11

 

Freedom of Speech in New York


By Tekla Szymanski

 

Anti-KKK demo, New YorkNew Yorkers have always defended their right to speak out. In October 2000, they fought vehemently over the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, and a picture smeared with elephant dung; they brain stormed over the attempt to define the meaning of art, reacted to then-Mayor Giuliani's emperor-like gusto in dealing with the "60s elite" (his words, not mine), and pondered the question whether to allow the Klan to demonstrate in downtown Manhattan. (At right: a counter demonstrator, showing-off his own hatred). All that was before September 11, 2001, when we were still preoccupied with the small stuff.

New Yorkers like to protect freedom of speech. This colossus of a city with its myriad of nationalities, can only survive if everyone has the right to speak out. And New Yorkers protect that right vigorously.

Many issues continue to provoke. What is happening? How can a country be at the same time so puritanical and conservative, and on the other hand be so proud of its First Amendment—the right to free speech—even defending this right in favor of groups that other countries desperately try to silence? In the United States, freedom of speech is regarded as the ultimate tool to counter forces that are threatening society—because the best weapon against hate speech is more speech. "It's easy to embrace freedom of speech for ideas we accept. The essence of freedom of speech is that we must protect the ideas we hate," said the lawyer Harriet Pilpel in 1986. But, alas, not everybody feels comfortable with this idea.

How did it all start? On one hand there was Mayor Giuliani's lashing out against art that he did not like, after the Brooklyn Museum staged an exhibition that was out to shock the public—and ultimately only affected the Mayor's sense of aesthetics. Most New Yorkers are aware that art needs not be pretty. They came in droves to see the exhibit, until is closed as scheduled in January 2001.

Then, there was the pathetic attempt by the notorious Ku Klux Klan to stage a rally in Manhattan. The usually hooded Klan members were stripped by court order of their disguise, but the courts ruled rightfully that they were allowed to appear in public anyway, even though Mayor Giuliani—again playing crusader for the defenseless New Yorkers—tried to prevent it. At the end, only 18 Klan members showed up and were so overwhelmed by the thousands of counter demonstrators, that they fled under boos and cheers into nearby Police Plaza, seeking protection.

The Klan was allowed to demonstrate because of their right to freedom of speech. No harm done: The New Yorkers took care of them. But the other battle against freedom of speech is still pending, and it revolves around what is art, and should bad art be penalized? "Good or bad art is about values and pertinence or the lack thereof," stated the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. "Art is a language, a means of communicating deeply held ideas and beliefs," added the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn D. Lowry. "To dismiss that which we do not like because we do not understand it makes no more sense than ignoring German or Chinese literature because we cannot read German or Chinese."

The Brooklyn Museum of Art went ahead with its exhibition Sensations, which includes British art works that Giuliani labeled as "sick stuff." By doing so, he skillfully followed in the footsteps of Senator Jesse Helms who proclaimed in 1989: "Penises will not be exposed at the tax payers expense," and proposed a five-year ban on the distribution of federal funds to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

Pat Buchanan was quick to add his two cents to the affair: "When we get control of that National Endowment for the Arts," he spouted, "you'll see how it ought to be done. You shut it down, fumigate the building, and put the I.R.S. in there." And Giuliani, back then still eagerly courting his potential conservative voters for a seat in the Senate, cut off the Brooklyn Museum's $7.2 million financing and went to court to evict the established institution from its building. But the court rejected his charge and ruled that the city has to pay its share to the museum immediately.

Then, the former major went even further in a last ditch effort by proclaiming, "anything that I can do is not art." We were all thankful the mayor could not do that much—otherwise there would have been no art left in city-funded museums in New York.

Giuliani's views, however, showed the sad state we are still in: Freedom of speech is widely enforced, sometimes to the grotesque, but at the same time needs to be protected from the clutches of politicians and their incredible arrogant view that we all need their wise guidance. But New Yorkers have proven over time with their no-nonsense approach that they are able to protect themselves, that they are equally able of differentiating between good and bad, and that they don't appreciate having ideas censored for fear of a frank, sometimes painful, dialogue. That is why this city is open to all ideas—if we like them or not.

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