Freedom From Freedom of Speech

This is a story about a woman named Julie Sbrocco and a man named Raymond Vasvari. Two very different people. One complicated and long-festering issue.

Julie Sbrocco used to be a clerk at the circulation desk of the Willowick Public Library in Willowick, Ohio. But not long ago, the February issue of Talk magazine showed up on the shelf, all chic and sophisticated, hip in its prose, hipper in its outlook.

Inside were articles on survival in Antarctica, burnout on Wall Street and sisterhood in the Senate. On the cover were actress Heather Graham and her bulging, barely-bridled boobs.

Sbrocco found the latter offensive, not to mention excruciatingly visible. True, the magazine went into the library's adult section, but children are freely admitted here; Talk was as accessible to them as Highlights and Sports Illustrated for Kids.

Sbrocco asked that the magazine be removed from the Willowick Public Library. It was not. So Sbrocco removed herself.

The library director, Holly Carroll, told Sbrocco that Talk is not a pornographic publication (despite another article in the February issue called "Martin Amis: His Triple-X Journey in the World of Porn"), and was therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Sbrocco said she understood, but then made the kind of sense that so offends the hawkers of today's libertine culture. She said that she "didn't believe in intellectual freedom without responsibility."

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, does — and at this point in the story I will pause to disclose my bias.

I don't like the ACLU. Strike that — I despise the ACLU. I have despised it ever since the late seventies, when, as a correspondent for NBC News, I covered a neo-Nazi march through the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois.

I watched the brutal, young thugs in the streets, saw their twisted grins and their swastika tattoos. I watched the old Jews in the neighborhoods, saw their sorrowful eyes and their concentration-camp tattoos. The punks were shouting slogans of hatred. The Jews were remembering when they, or their parents or friends, had heard such words before.

The Nazis had been given permission to march through the streets of Skokie because of a judge's ruling that the First Amendment was on their side. The ACLU represented the Nazis. It did not represent the Jews. It did not care about the gratuitous pain that the Nazis were going to inflict, pain that had nothing to do with free speech in any compassionate definition of the term.

I will never forgive the American Civil Liberties Union for what it did that day. And to this day it is the same group. It insists that virtually anyone has a right to say or do virtually anything, and so the ACLU itself stands for nothing. It insists that only the right of the speaker matters, and so the ACLU denies the very humanity of those who are assaulted by the speech. It insists that the First Amendment is to be interpreted in a way that the Founding Fathers never intended, and so the ACLU makes principle, not patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Can you imagine Jefferson looking over the First Amendment with pen in hand, turning to Madison, saying: "Let's keep the wording general here, Jim. A couple centuries from now some Nazi wannabes might want to torment some Jews, or a cable TV network might want to show a guy setting himself on fire, or Tina Brown might want to put Heather Graham's bazooms on the cover of her magazine. Gotta make sure they're covered."

The ACLU can imagine it. The ACLU believes it. Tell the ACLU that Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to protect unpopular views on politics and religion, not tits and ass and hatred and stupidity, and the group will issue a press release that marvels at the narrowness of your vision.

So anyhow, the ACLU gets wind of Julie Sbrocco in Willowick, Ohio, and the group's legal director, Raymond Vasvari, is quoted as follows: "It's precisely people like this who make the First Amendment necessary."

Whoa! Wait a minute. Am I hearing this right, Ray? The First Amendment is a necessity because of Julie Sbrocco? Jefferson and Madison meant to put an end to decency and integrity and community regard? Americans need to be protected from a small-town librarian who simply expressed her views and then quit her job to stand up for them?

You know what, Ray? I'll take my chances with Julie Sbrocco. You're the one I want to be protected from. You're the one who's dragging the First Amendment into disrepute. It's because of people like you that millions of Americans who believe fervently in freedom of speech are simultaneously longing for freedom from freedom of speech.

That's your legacy, Ray. That's your vision of America. That's the position of the American Uncivil Liberties Union.

Maybe Talk magazine will do a piece on you.