Now that Kristin Henson’s book, “Dirty Signs,” has been published and outrage is now circulating among the Deaf community on social media, I thought it a good time to reprint the column I wrote in early 2012 about freedom of speech and why it’s so important that we understand the distinction between banning and protesting a book.
People who write negative reviews on the book’s Amazon page are doing the right thing.
People who write protest letters to the book’s publishers are doing the right thing.
People who say it should never have been published are saying the right thing.
People who say it should have been banned in the first place are saying the wrong thing.
Henson’s book should never be banned, but I can support protesting a majority group member’s economic exploitation of the endangered language of a minority group. It is immensely unfair that even as thousands of deaf children are being deprived of or actively barred the opportunity to learn American Sign Language, a hearing person with very little connection to deafness is profiting from perverting the language (not only by teaching only dirty signs, but also by doing them wrong).
I know people are not going to like my position, but I will always, always support our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and the press. So, without further ado, here’s the original column.
Why Dirty Signs Should Not Be Banned
All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.
–George Bernard Shaw
Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.
When I got the request a few days ago to “attend” the Facebook event “Banning ‘Dirty Signs With Kristin,’” I was more than a little dismayed. The extreme and occasionally violent comments on the page aside, I objected to the use of the word “ban” and said as such in my own posted comment. As a professional journalist who also has literary and library experience, I have a revulsion to any hint of book banning and a dogmatic protectiveness of our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The more I read about the controversy over Kristin Henson’s book, the more disturbed and conflicted I’ve become, but also the more convinced I am that we all need to be reminded about what exactly freedom of speech means in this country and why it is so important.
To begin, I want to make it very clear that I’m not crazy about this book. I wouldn’t have watched the videos either, but for a desire to maintain my journalistic integrity. From a cultural standpoint, I understand and support the objections to it – cultural appropriation, exploitation, inaccuracy of language, etc. I’ve signed Octavian Robinson’s petition, and if the book doesn’t get published, great. However, what I do feel compelled to do is to defend Henson’s right to publish her book, if she and her publisher choose to proceed despite the Deaf community’s objections. And here is why:
One of the most preciously held tenets of freedom here in the United States is that of freedom of speech, because our founders understood that it’s often the first freedom to vanish under an authoritarian or oppressive regime, with fatal consequences for ordinary citizens. Freedom of speech is central to our founding documents, and countless people have died on battlefields, marched in streets and fought in courtrooms to protect and expand that freedom. And the exercise of that freedom and others granted by the First Amendment has led to further freedoms for underserved, underrepresented and oppressed minority groups. Likewise, journalists around the world have fought to maintain freedom of speech as a crucial complement to freedom of the press. Both freedoms are the two most important tools a journalist can use to turn the proverbial magnifying glass on politicians, corporations and other figures who wield power over others.
And that is why to speak of banning Kristin Henson’s “Dirty Signs,” does a serious disservice to all those who have fought, died, been jailed or otherwise oppressed and punished for protecting our First Amendment freedoms. Those people understood that all speech must be defended because to allow the handpicking of which speech acts are OK invites manipulation and discrimination by individuals in positions of power who can arbitrarily impose on others their litmus test for approval of speech acts on a moral, religious or other basis. Along those lines, the Supreme Court has developed over the past two centuries a very narrow guideline to what speech is not protected by the First Amendment. First of all, almost no speech can be banned or suppressed before it is actually produced. And after the speech is produced or published, only certain forms are punishable, including libel and slander, incitement to illegal action such as rioting and violence, very narrowly defined obscenity, and “fighting words” aimed at an individual. One category of speech NOT included with those is hate speech, and the Supreme Court has ruled in multiple cases over the past 60 years (most recently, Snyder v. Phelps, or the Westboro Baptist Church case) that hate speech is protected by the Constitution.
Many people may not understand why the Supreme Court would allow such appalling hate speech by the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church, and think it’s common sense that such speech should be banned. But those of us who rely on First Amendment protection in our careers understand that in order to protect some, we must protect all in the most general sense possible. In order to protect the rights of oppressed minority groups to freedom of speech, assembly and petition, those rights must be protected for everyone, no matter how repulsive one group thinks another group’s or individual’s speech. Kristin Henson has a right to publish her book. Members of the Deaf community and all interested parties have the right to object to that publication via speech and petition. But what they should not do is agitate for its banning – even though they have the right to try – because that move will never succeed. Nor do they have any constitutionally protected right to threaten or advocate physical violence against Hansen.
The reason this freedom of speech is such an important human right is because of the opportunities it affords for education. To ban speech acts is to shut down important avenues of communication and learning. That is why there should never have been mention of banning “Dirty Signs.” Instead, the more appropriate approach is that taken by Robinson: a drive for positive education of Kristin Henson and St. Martin’s Press that to portray her signs as authentic American Sign Language is inaccurate, inappropriate and harmful to a linguistic and cultural minority group. And in the event that Hansen and her publisher choose to exercise their right to freedoms of speech and press, a space for dialogue should be established in which the deaf community and Henson and her publisher can negotiate a solution that respects her right to freedom of speech as well as the Deaf community’s image and integrity. That dialogue can include a discussion about ensuring the inclusion of the disclaimer Hansen usually posts with her YouTube videos that clarifies she is not a professional and that her signs are not intended to be accurate linguistic representations of ASL. The dialogue also could include a discussion about the possibility of donating some portion of the book’s profits to an organization or foundation whose mission is to educate others about ASL and deaf culture. Henson has said on Twitter and her blog that she advocates accessibility for Deaf people. Let us allow her the opportunity to walk the walk.
This book’s publication doesn’t just offer us the opportunity to educate Henson and St. Martin’s Press, it also opens a door for the community to continue educating the majority population about what ASL is and is not. That opportunity would not exist without examples of inaccurate ASL to point to. And, satire and farce have long been agents of change, shoving uncomfortable and sensitive issues in the face of society and provoking people to discuss issues of concern, to the further education of all. Therefore they continue to be some of the most closely protected speech acts under the First Amendment. The sooner members of the Deaf community understand this, the sooner we can utilize it to further our own agenda as well as turn that proverbial microscope on Hansen and her book to expose it for what it is.
Because in this country, we do not ban books. We discuss them, learn from those discussions, and use what we learn to better understand each other. And with understanding comes progress toward greater equality for all.