CINEMA Turned On? Turn It Off

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, . . . or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press AMENDMENT I CINEMA Turned On? Turn It Off Switching channels may be one cu

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Traditionally, the left arm of the law wants to regulate economics but not morality; the right wants to regulate morality but not economics. And most people can cite some affront to public morality -- heavy metal lyrics or sick jokes on drive-time radio; Miami Vice, R-rated teen splatter films, soft-core sex on cable or hard-core sex in the video stores -- that they would like to see prohibited, at least to the young. Nobody denies that art packs danger and that trash can numb the soul. "Porn is like fast food," Goldstein says. "It's fast sex, and that's its limitation." Even he, a civil libertarian, can be moved to censor. "I'm a First Amendment absolutist," he declares, "except when it comes to pedophilia." And Zappa admits to prejudices: "I would rather have my children watch a quadruple-X film than one minute of Jimmy Swaggart." But Zappa adds that he would not censor the swaggering evangelist or anyone else. "The less access you have to facts," he says, "the more you must live by rumor and rhetoric."

In 1670 Benedict de Spinoza wrote, "In a free state everyone may think what he pleases, and say what he thinks." Modern translation: in a free state everyone may see what pleases him, and offer for public consumption what will please -- or outrage -- others. New York University Journalism Professor Lois Sheinfeld updates Spinoza: "It's difficult to live in a democracy. Sometimes we have to recognize that there will be neo-Nazis marching down the street." And sometimes there will be Faces of Death, Midnight Blue and Howard Stern. "But First Amendment rights," says Sheinfeld, "are placed beyond the reach of the majority. Their reason is to protect the speech of all. Without total protection no speech is free, all speech is at risk." Without free speech, even in its most rancid forms, we may have nothing to choose at night but old movies and "Heeeeeeeere's Johnny!"

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