“A Future American History Reviewed” by Karen A. Olson (of
Boulder Denver at the time of publication) was the Colorado state prize winning essay in American Voices: Prize-winning Essays on Freedom of Speech, Censorship and Advertising Bans published by Philip Morris USA in 1987. More about the crappy old book here.
Olson’s essay consists of an exchange of six letters between the fictional characters Ben Fintz, editor of the journal, American History Revisited, and Karen, a contributing author to the journal. The year is 2191. It is clear from the first letter than Karen and Ben are both professionally and personally acquainted, and we surmise are of the same socioeconomic bracket in late 22nd American society. Ben has offered Karen a writing assignment, “an article on the merger between the executive and judicial branches” that occurred in the late 21st century. Not being an expert in “politilegal history,” Karen shies away from that assignment, but offers an alternative regarding the history of the abolition for the First Amendment.
The letter exchange chronicles Karen’s research and their reactions to her findings.
January 12, 2191
… I’ve recently read some publications from the 1980s and 1990s, and I’ve run across a few pieces that shed light on the events that preceded the abolition of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Prevailing wisdom maintains that this peculiar little law just withered away of its own irrelevancy. However, I think I could make the case that a series of well-meaning but misdirected efforts was actually responsible for the death of unrestricted freedom of speech and press.
Contrary to popular belief, Americans in the 20th century did appear to place value on the First Amendment. The rhetoric of the period shows that, at least in theory, they held the concept in high esteem. In my article, I would argue that they never intended to abolish any part of the so-call “bill of Rights”; I will develop the hypothesis that they simply cut away at certain applications of the amendment until, ultimately, there was no amendment left.
February 28, 2191
You have already anticipated my objection: Your topic is simply not important enough to warrant an assignment. Everyone agrees that unrestricted freedom of speech is a mad idea. Censorship is the only viable solution to deal with those who would contaminate innocent minds with unwise, false or even dangerous propositions.
… You write as if the original intention of the Bill of Rights was to allow anyone to say or write anything he or she pleased. I expect you are mistaken here. Although I have not personally read Thomas Jefferson on the subject, I cannot believe such a brilliant man would advocate something so reckless.
Because of their personal relationship, he does not reject the idea outright and instead suggests she take a humorous tone by including other antiquated laws, “those laws that ban spitting on Sunday” and so on. He concludes by asking her, should she persist, to send periodic updates and by reminding her that no matter his decision “our Board of Directors must approve the content.”
Karen will pursue the idea.
March 3, 2191
… I hope you did not confuse my enthusiasm for the topic with any softheaded notion that censorship is wrong.
Nevertheless, I am touched by the naive sincerity of the American people in the last half of the 20th century. The more I read, the more I am convinced that they really supported freedom of expression. Given their low level of education, simplicity is to be expected. … advanced minds were able to see the dangers in a flirtation with anarchy.
Karen then parenthetically notes that the masses did not change their collective minds about censorship. “Rather the advocates had to move slowly, issue by issue.” Repeat. Had the advocates been less skilled, the masses might have resisted… .
Upon re-reading her own words, she corrects herself.
… yet my research shows that [the advocates of censorship] were as unaware as their followers of their destination. They did the right things for the wrong reasons.
[Insert some of Mr. Big Food’s thoughts on conspiracy theories here.]
Having not heard from Ben in several weeks, Karen assumes all is well and sends another update.
March 23, 2191
… I intended to develop the thesis that the authors of the Bill of Rights never intended to permit completely unbridled expression in either speech or printed material. I have hit a snag, however.
I managed to find an old copy of the original Bill of Rights and read the amendments themselves.
HA. Take that all y’all who poke fun at me for having so many
crappy old copies of the Declaration of Independence and of The Constitution of The United States of America.
The first one says, “Congress shall make no law (emphasis added)… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. . . .” Now, we were raised to understand that Congress limited any restriction to those that serve the common good. But I can’t find language to that effect anywhere in the original document. … I have also run across some obscure writing of Thomas Jefferson that disturb me.
He continues, “If [a] book be false in facts, disprove them; if false in reasoning, refute it. But for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides.” Radical, eh?
To which Ben replies
April 1, 2191
… drop this folly… . Let me tempt you with an assignment on the establishment of Ordered Population Zones… . Since you delight in exploring chaos, describe the havoc that reigned prior to government direction of population migration. Can you imagine how Arizona and Florida would look today if we had not dispersed the elderly throughout the country?
As to your quandry… . Forget about what the founding fathers meant, what Jefferson wrote, what the original Bill of Rights said. None of that is relevant.
April 16, 2191
… I am saddened by my conviction that those people did not know what they were doing. They stumbled down a path they did not want to travel, prodded by vague fears and noble sentiments that they were acting for the common good. I do not believe they intended to end up where we are.
You may chuckle (I cannot) to read that restrictions began with someone saying that freedom of speech was never intended to permit someone to yell “Fire” in a crowed theater. How absurd. As though early Americans were overrun with lunatics hollering “Fire” in crowded theaters. As though other, less drastic, safeguards could not have been invoked to deal with those rare circumstances in which one madman did indeed endanger public safety.
We know vaguely of the evil of Naziiasm. We can understand why people of that age prohibited expressions of sympathy for its evil tenets. Now, the prohibition seems wise and beneficial. But my reading shows that many people who supported restrictions did so reluctantly. In their hearts, they supported individual rights and freedom, but they panicked and became practitioners of the very repression they abhorred.
The next steps these primitive people took are laughable in their triviality. They imposed restrictions against the businesses of the day, limiting their rights to promote products. It seems silly to us now: certain goods and services could be legally sold, but they could not be legally discussed.
The question that intrigues me remains the intention of these people. We are fortunate to live in a society that maintains high standards for what can be publicly said or printed. We are spared the idiot ravings of those who cannot meet our standards. We have mistakenly credited these early Americans with establishing the basis for our standards. We have assumed that they would applaud our success.
We are wrong. I am convinced that the people of the late 1900s had no desire to abandon the First Amendment. I expect they thought one little restriction would do no “harm.” I fear that, given another chance, they would look at our sanitized society and shout, “No!”
Surely we are safer than those vulnerable people of the 20th century, protected as we are from the temptations of incorrect thinking. Surely we are happier, free from the anxiety of trying to sort out truths from a tangled mess of competing information. Surely the small price we paid was worth the certainty we gained.
But I cannot help but be haunted by the feeling that those people who gave us the seeds would tremble at the harvest. They would feel betrayed. I keep hearing their voices, raised in a welcome chorus of blessed second chance, shouting, “No!”
Ben, you were right all along. This article should not be written. We are better off without it, and I gratefully accept your offer of a more suitable assignment.