Sunday, September 16, 2012

Panic Street Lawyer: The revolution starts .. How? - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

201209wap_comboclintonromney_150This week, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney -- both graduates of Ivy League law schools -- eventually found something upon which to agree … I think.

In a week of protests throughout the Middle East tied to Internet distribution of an anti-Muslim film produced in the United States, Secretary of State Clinton stated that, although she found it “disgusting and reprehensible,” “we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.” Governor Romney stated that, although the film was “awful” and a “very bad thing,” the filmmaker was within his rights because “we have a First Amendment, and under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do.”

When the form of speech is music rather than movies, Clinton and Romney would also concede that even the hateful messages delivered by neo-Nazi skinhead bands, ones to which the Sikh temple killer in Wisconsin was affiliated, cannot be criminalized in the United States. Other governments -- and not just those in predominantly Muslim countries (see: Pussy Riot) -- which punish musicians for expression of views would be condemned by Hillary and Mitt, if asked to comment.

While nearly all speech in all forms is entitled to the same legal protection in this country, the personal opinions expressed by Clinton and Romney about “The Innocence of Muslims” makes clear that we don’t believe that all speech is of equal moral worth. And some may feel that what the economically and/or politically weak in this country have to say needs to be amplified.

Two strong free speech advocates on behalf of society’s underdogs just happened to be in Pittsburgh (specifically, in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh) within 48 hours of each other. They are:


Amy Goodman at Carnegie Mellon University. Jay Hormack photo            

Journalism: Amy Goodman

Born in 1957, Goodman became the news director of New York City radio station WBAI (of George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” unprotected speech fame) in the 1980s. She co-founded the “Democracy Now!” daily news program, now aired by more than 1,000 radio, TV, satellite and cable television networks in North America (in Pittsburgh, the program can be heard on WRCT-FM and seen on a public access TV channel). Goodman is the author of five books, including this year’s The Silenced Majority: Stories of Uprisings, Occupations, Resistance and Hope. She read excerpts from that book to a nearly filled auditorium on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus Thursday night.

Goodman also related to the audience a couple of news items from last month’s Republican National Convention, too recent to make the book, in which she was part of the story. First, her producer was involved in a physical confrontation with the daughter of billionaire GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. Second, Goodman was denied an answer, to a question posed to one of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, by a New York GOP delegation human shield. In both of these stories, Goodman was challenging the economically and politically powerful as part of a message that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United campaign financing decision is bad for democracy.


Steve Earle at a New Orleans festival in May. Gerald Herbert/Associated Press            

Music: Steve Earle

Born in 1955, Earle released his first EP in 1982. Since then, he has had 13 other studio albums, the most recent being “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive” in 2011 (this is also the name of his 2011 novel). Earle has won three Grammy awards, including Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2005 for “The Revolution Starts … Now.” He is the subject of at least two biographies and he is reportedly working on an autobiography. And Earle received an honorary law degree from CUNY in 2011 â€" not bad for someone who dropped out of school at age 16. Earle was scheduled to give a solo performance at the Carnegie Lecture Hall Saturday night.

While Earle is much beloved in the alt-country music world, his political views on issues such as the death penalty (he opposes it) and the year-old Occupy movement (he supports it) have not been popular with everyone. I was very surprised to see Earle’s name omitted from a New York Times op-ed piece mentioning protest singers in 2012, which is exactly one century after the birth of Woody Guthrie. But most of an entire chapter (entitled “Saying the Unsayable After 9/11”) was devoted to Earle in the 2011 Dorian Lynskey book “33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs.”

This chapter relates how Earle was subjected to heated criticism for his 2002 album “Jerusalem,” which included a sympathetic song he wrote and sang from the perspective of American-born, young Muslim convert John Walker Lindh (“John Walker’s Blues). Lynskey also recalled how, in the year following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, giant radio conglomerate Clear Channel issued a list of 150 “lyrically questionable” songs to be avoided by its on-air DJs. This list included “Imagine” by John Lennon (John Lindh was named after Lennon) and the entire back catalog of Rage Against the Machine (in 2001, the band’s admitted fan Paul Ryan would have been in his second two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives).

Now the year is 2012: “Imagine” is the number 1 all-time song of WYEP-FM listeners; Google, not Clear Channel DJs, is self-censoring questionable speech; and John Walker Lindh is making First Amendment legal news from his Indiana prison unit.

Amy Goodman and Steve Earle are still doing their part in 2012 to advance a progressive agenda in America through use of their talented means of expression. As Earle told an audience in the midst of the “John Walker’s Blues” controversy: “Just remember that no matter what you hear it’s never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question any f***ing thing in a democracy.”

Would George Carlin consider my obscured quote a silly sort of self-censorship?

The Panic Street Lawyer is a personal opinion column by attorney Jay Hornack. Contact him right here at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow Jay on Twitter: @panicstlawyer.


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