By Ashley Slack
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
That is our first amendment.
At the beginning of every school year in my journalism class, the students have to memorize and recite it in front of the class. When I first joined, I gave no thought to what it said; it was merely an assignment I had to get through before we got to the fun stuff.
In light of recent events and experiences, however, the First Amendment’s meaning and importance has become clearer to me.
Last month, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) caused an uproar when they were up for a vote on January 24.
The acts were designed to stop online piracy by monitoring web browsers and sites to ensure the security of copyrighted materials. Although intended solely for the protection of media, everyone went crazy thinking their free speech was being imposed upon: people began to protest; newsfeeds burst with articles from both sides of the argument; Internet giants like Wikipedia took drastic measures – temporarily shutting off their website – to protect their First Amendment rights.
Although it wasn’t in imminent danger, I began to evaluate the importance of free speech, and I was immediately struck by the effects censorship would have on a major aspect of my life: theater. Last year at Petaluma High School, their drama department put on a production of my favorite show, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent. Filled with drug use, two homosexual couples, a stripper, and a drag queen, this show isn’t necessarily school-appropriate. However, it has a powerful message about living life to the fullest because, in the words of Jonathan Larson, there “is no day but today.”
When I asked the opinion of some of my friends who had seen the show, they told me they had been disappointed in it, particularly those who have seen the actual movie or production of Rent.
They were upset because the story in Petaluma’s version was censored in order to keep it school appropriate. My friends were unable to enjoy the songs and characters that instantly touch your heart because they weren’t able to witness the show in its raw and honest form.
My friend Brittany recently ended a run of the musical Spring Awakening at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. The show frequently uses profane language, discusses abusive relationships, flaunts teenage angst, and depicts several sexual relationships. During the rehearsal process, she was telling me that the director was thinking about censoring those scenes to make it more family-friendly. I was aghast. While covering up a few exposed body parts may bring in more family audiences, the integrity and power of the show is lessened.
Our First Amendment is taken for granted. We don’t give it any serious thought until the threat of its being taken away looms right overhead.
Our right to free speech and expression could easily be stripped away, leaving us in a state of ignorant delusion. Understanding that plays are cleaned up for appropriateness makes me realize how easily those rights can be revoked.