07/19/2013 01:41 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Rolling Stone : A Case Against Censorship


The release of Rolling Stone's August 2013 issue featuring bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover has set ablaze a virtual firestorm of protest. A long list of celebrities, including John Rich, Kelly and Jack Osbourn, Tommy Lee, Brad Paisley, Ralph Macchio, and many others have vehemently criticized the magazine's management for what they consider its poor judgment in glorifying an alleged Boston Marathon bomber as a rock star. Some are calling for a boycott of the issue.

In a letter sent to Rolling Stone, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino conveyed his displeasure: "It is ill-conceived, at best, and re-affirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their 'causes.'" Victims of the bombing also voiced their misgivings over the latest controversy.

Rolling Stone released an official statement declaring that their hearts go out to the victims, and that their thoughts are with them and their families. The statement continued:

"The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone's long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue."

Profiling the infamous on the cover of Rolling Stone is not without precedent with, for example, the 1970 cover of mass murderer Charles Manson. In fact, the very image covering Rolling Stone's August issues was also applied to the covers of numerous other publications, including the New York Times, and appeared on scores of broadcast news outlets since the suspected Boston Marathon bombers' identities were made public in April.

To comment, to critique and criticize, to add our voices and our pens to the discussion and debate, to take actions in the form of boycotts, mass marches and protest demonstrations, sit-ins and teach-ins, in other words, to raise issues of concern and consideration to the highest levels of public discourse, these acts show our deepest commitment to right the wrongs we perceive in our lives and throughout our social, cultural, economic, and political environments. These actions arise not only as our rights as guaranteed by our magnificent Constitution, but stand as our rights as reflective thinkers inhabiting this planet.

As one of those billions upon billions of reflective thinkers, though, my antennae of concern set off a thunderous alarm whenever confronted with even the slightest glimmer of what appears as censorship, and this siren rings loudly and steadily around me today.

In the wake of the current controversy over the Rolling Stone cover, an ever increasing number of retailers, though consistently stocking the magazine in the past, have vowed not to carry the August issue. These outlets include national and regional chains such as CVS, Tedeschi Foods, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Kmart, and 7-11.

As wisely and eloquently stated by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, "the pen is mightier than the sword"; this adage holds that the written word, and I would add graphic and pictorial depictions, act as powerful tools in the transmission of ideas. Why else would oppressive regimes and other avid enforcers of the status quo engage in censorship, book banning and burning throughout the ages?

Censorship and banning of publications contradicts the wise words of poet and essayist Audre Lorde when she warned that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," meaning that one cannot defeat despotism by engaging in the oppressive tactics of despots (from Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press Feminist Series, 1984).

Every year, the American Library Association announces its list of the most challenged and banned publications in schools, libraries, retail establishments, and within the larger society. Books banned or challenged span the classics like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally, to young people's books such as And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell, Heather Has Two Mommies, by Lesléa Newman, Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford, and Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, among many other well-known and obscure materials.

While I do not place Rolling Stone necessarily in the category of the classics censored and banned throughout the history of ideas, I certainly advocate for the age-appropriate consumption of materials from which we may derive our own conclusions and our own ideas. The denial of the free exchange of ideas contradicts the very ideals and goals of a free society.

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of volunteering as a reader in Boston, Mass., for the American Library Association's (APA) annual 24-hour read-a-thon during its annual "Banned Books Week" events in which people read excerpts from previously censored and banned publications.

According to the APA:

"Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community -- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types -- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."

That day in Boston, I read from one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman's volume Leaves of Grass. Within the collection one will find his "Calamus" poems celebrating the human body and same-sex sexuality and relationships between men. Whitman took this titled from Kalamos in Greek mythology who turned into a reed in grief for his young male lover, Karpos, who drowned. After the book's release in 1860, librarians placed it within a locked cabinet at the Harvard University library with other materials thought to undermine students' morals, and students could only get access to the book after presenting a note from a professor. The government swiftly fired Whitman from his job at the U.S. Department of the Interior over such words from his poem "When I Heard at the Close of the Day":

"...[W]hen I thought how my dear friend, my lover, was on his way coming, O then I was happy;
O then each breath tasted sweeter -- and all that day my food nourish'd me more -- and the beautiful day pass'd well,
And the next came with equal joy -- and with the next, at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast -- and that night I was happy."

Today, attempts are underway to restrict access to a magazine, but censorship has always been a tactic of the powerful to deprive others the means of arriving at their own conclusions. Let us not, therefore, replicate "the master's tools to dismantle the master's house" even when involving materials "some consider unorthodox or unpopular."