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Free Speech an Important Cornerstone

Published: October 4, 2005

Albany Times Union
Published 10/4/2005

Free Speech an Important Cornerstone
By Neema Trivedi & Marjorie Heins

Something deeply un-American has just happened in New York. After a long and careful process in which citizens helped select four cultural institutions to be present at the World Trade Center memorial site, Gov. George Pataki has unilaterally silenced free speech at ground zero.

Responding to political pressures back in June, Pataki imposed a vague new censorship requirement on the International Freedom Center, the Drawing Center, the Joyce Dance Theater, and the Signature Theater Company. He told them they would not be allowed to display anything that “denigrates America” or “denigrates New York or freedom.”

The Drawing Center withdrew soon after; and the IFC was told it would have to submit further information by Sept. 23 in order to persuade the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. that it would obey Pataki’s strict if vague new rules.

Some, though not all, family members of those who died had objected that the IFC would focus more on the sometimes tragic history of freedom in our own country—including those periods during which we did not protect our own citizens’ freedoms—than upon the events of 9/11 itself. For instance, in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal in June, Debra Burlingame, the sister of one of the pilots who died on 9/11, complained that the IFC would present information about such historical events as the genocide of Native Americans, lynchings in the Jim Crow South and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

These objections persuaded Pataki to announce that the four cultural institutions chosen for the WTC site should be muzzled. The IFC was ordered to submit more information about its plans. But barely had it done so when Sen. Hillary Clinton announced that the IFC project should be canceled because of the concerns that some family members of 9/11 victims had expressed to her. Days later, Pataki announced he was banning the IFC from the site.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had protested that Pataki’s initial call for censorship undermined a two-year “deliberative process that tried to involve all parts of the community,” said in response to Pataki’s latest dictate: “I am disappointed that we were not able to find a way to reconcile the freedoms we hold so dear with the sanctity of the site.”

Visitors to ground zero will not benefit from the educational programs about the history of freedom that the IFC had planned. But far more important is the irony that freedom has been stifled at the very spot where it should be most celebrated. Families of 9/11 victims have understandable concerns that we not forget the events of that day. But our elected public officials have an obligation not to subvert the right of free speech in order to avoid political controversy. Instead of using this20opportunity to make an affirmative statement that our democratic ideals are impervious to attack, those officials abdicated their obligation to protect rather than squelch freedom of expression and public debate.

What’s happened at ground zero should be a reminder that threats to democracy and freedom can come from within the United States as well as from foreign shores. The IFC would have educated visitors about the suppression of freedom in past eras, from the Jim Crow South to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But in doing so, it would have celebrated our country’s remarkable tradition of discussing and learning from our mistakes instead of denying their existence.

Allowing the IFC to occupy its designated space at ground zero would have honored the heroes of 9/11 by following in that great American tradition.

Instead of context, education, and history to enrich our experience at the 9/11 site, it seems we will only have, as Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote of other efforts to enforce political orthodoxy, “the unanimity of the graveyard.”

Neema Trivedi is a Research Associate for the Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP) at the Brennan Center for Justice. Marjorie Heins is coordinator of FEPP.