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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Tuesday, June 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Treasure Or Trash? Law Should Leave Us Leeway To Decide

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Knight-Ridder

Two pictures.

One is of a teenage boy, a dwarf, performing what is supposed to be oral sex on a teenage girl.

The other is of police in Oklahoma City raiding video stores and private homes to confiscate a banned video.

Two pictures. You tell me which one is obscene.

The first picture comes from “The Tin Drum,” an Oscar-winning 1979 German film based on the world-renowned novel of the same name by Gunter Grass, about a boy traumatized by World War II and his mother’s sexual indiscretions.

The second picture comes from real life. It seems that the state of Oklahoma has a statute barring the depiction of children under 18 engaged in explicit acts. Spurred by the director of a group called Oklahomans for Children and Families, state law enforcement authorities sent police to pull the R-rated movie off video store shelves. In at least two cases, local video outlets apparently even provided police with the names of customers who had checked the movie out. The bizarre result: police officers showing up at private homes to seize the contraband.

I know what you expect right here. You expect me to put on my First Amendment armor and go out to do battle with the Oklahoma law. You expect me to denounce it as stupid and censorious.

I only wish I could; it would make my life a lot easier. But who can argue with a statute designed to protect children from sexual exploitation? Of which there’s certainly no scarcity in the entertainment industry. Nor do you have to go as far as kiddie porn to find examples: For years, I winced as I watched teen actors David Faustino and Christina Applegate trade single-entendres as the sex-crazed siblings of “Married … With Children.” I wondered how it was that no one judged this stuff a tad crude for kids.

So Oklahoma’s law seems, on the face of it anyway, rational and reasonable. Yet the events of recent days serve as graphic reminder and cautionary warning that even “good” laws can be problematic when it comes to regulating matters of art. After all, “The Tin Drum’s” critical reputation seems beyond reproach. It is regarded as a work of high art.

(I will grant you, though, that it’s not my cup of tea. Maybe I’ve spent too many nights watching action movies with Roman numerals in the titles, but I found this “masterwork” a tortured, tedious allegory that seemed to drone on forever. “The Tin Drum” was not my idea of a good time at the movies. It was also not kiddie porn. Not by a longshot.)

I find myself reminded that the biggest problem with freedom of speech is its operating assumption: that we should risk being capsized in swill in order that we might occasionally be blinded by light.

It is a tough trade-off, notwithstanding the fact that we’ve been trying to get it right for 221 years. Small wonder it’s difficult: We are asked to trust that the gains we reap are ultimately worth the risks we take, that we will glean from a mountain of pyrite a sliver of gold.

The daily miracle is that we keep doing it, keep choosing to step out on faith and restrict our right of free expression as little as possible.

Because we recognize that when it comes to free speech, law is a blunt instrument, a clumsy tool unable to recognize the difference between “The Tin Drum” and pedophile pornography. And because the things that can happen when laws restricting speech are broken should be anathema to our national soul.

That’s why the example set in Oklahoma is chilling.

So let us end where we began. With two pictures. One is of a boy performing oral sex on a girl. The other is of police entering the home of an adult American and confiscating a video on the grounds that he should not be allowed to see it.

Two pictures.

Granted, under Oklahoma law, one might be obscene, but the other is downright offensive.


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