Recently in a town outside Boston, a number of men and women have been marching in protest, day after day, outside a so-called bookstore. It is a place where all sorts of sex magazines and manuals and slides and films can be purchased — a center of pornographic “materials” set in the middle of what used to be an old New England farming village, and is now a suburb where families try to live a reasonably decent and honorable life. The persistence of the picketing attracted some local news coverage, and soon enough one saw on television one’s fellow citizens — ordinary human beings outraged that such a place should be within walking distance of groceries and the post office and, not least, churches. One read comments in the papers on the question: Why must this be tolerated, under what set of laws? On television, and in those papers, one began to hear the answers — the familiar responses of lawyers and so-called “libertarians.” The First Amendment was mentioned again and again: we must preserve freedom of speech, freedom of the press; we must beware of setting ourselves up as holier-than-thou judges of others. We must beware of our self-righteousness, because one day’s assault on the owners of a shop full of smut might turn into the next day’s persecution of those of this or that religious persuasion or intellectual point of view.
I am sure there is some reason always to be watchful, lest intolerance, bigotry, narrowmindedness, and self-righteous arrogance make serious inroads upon our cultural and, indeed, personal lives. Salem (with its history of witch hysteria) is not all that removed from the particular town, Stoughton, whose struggle I’ve just mentioned. Religious belief has certainly been used in the past as an excuse to brand people not only witches, but enemies of the state, who must be banished at all costs. Our nation’s history offers abundant instances of fearful, frenzied name calling — enough of them, certainly, to give pause to anyone who wants to go after someone else’s written or spoken opinions, or yes, personal tastes. In 19th-century Boston nuns were attacked, priests vilified. In 20th-century Boston, Jews were set upon, beaten. Boston’s recent racial history — the violence which daily persists between blacks and whites — has earned the city a sad reputation, indeed. A city whose abolitionists preached loudly to the South is now a city beset by terrible antagonisms grounded in that social and economic vulnerability that so often generates a fearful distrust of others, different by virtue of race, religion, or ethnic background.
I go into the preceding discussion to acknowledge its significance — and because the people of the greater Boston area were asked to remember such matters of law, politics, and history (by one or another voice of legal or constitutional authority) as they contemplated the continuing picketing of the “bookstore.” But we were warned that our cherished liberty includes the liberty of those who want to read such things, and the liberty of those who want to sell books, magazines, and pamphlets that appeal to “certain kinds of people.”
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