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Trigger Warning: A High School Censors A Speech About Censorship

Wallkill Senior High School just censored my lecture about censorship.

Several months ago, the school in an upstate New York community known for its prisons and apple orchards invited me to participate in its annual “Author’s Day” event on April 4 and 5. Published writers gab to administrators, librarians and educators over a buffet dinner and then lecture to several classes of students the following day. It’s a schlep from Manhattan, but writers receive a modest honorarium and I enjoy talking to kids about my passion.

The talk focused on my book, “Killed Cartoons: Casualties From The War On Free Expression” (W.W. Norton), a collection of editorial art that newspapers and magazines deemed too controversial to publish. The school’s website graciously described me as “a top journalist on the front lines of world news and politics who has written 2 critically acclaimed books on the censorship of political cartoons and news articles.”

Now I had been warned that the school is located in a conservative district, and I understood that the underlying topic of my talk — the embattled free press in the Trump era — could prove controversial. But the school should have known what it was getting into. After all, I did not write a young adult novel about a talking purple whale, but hard-hitting nonfiction books on censorship. And my first audience — primarily educators with a mission to opening minds for a living — would, I assumed, be interested in my message even if it weren’t exactly theirs.

I assumed wrong.

Around dessert time, I walked to the lectern in the neighborhood Italian restaurant and joked that the audience would be getting a second helping of broccoli.

Unlike the other authors, creators of children’s books who spoke ad hoc about how they became writers, I prepared remarks, because I had something important to say: The leader of the free world has declared war on our free press, and his multi-pronged assault endangers our democracy.

On February 24, President Trump stood before an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and smeared journalists by calling them “enemy of the people.”

That particular phrase, “’enemy of the people,’ holds a sinister place in the history of political rhetoric,” as I told my fidgety audience. Among those who have launched such verbal missiles to demonize their opponents are Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who labeled Jews “enemies of the German people” murderous Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, and Russian autocrat Joseph Stalin.

As the BBC recently recounted, during Stalin’s long, brutal reign, “out-of-favour artists and politicians were designated enemies and many were sent to hard labour camps or killed. Others were stigmatised and denied access to education and employment.”

People stared at their brownies and avoided my eyes, except some of the bulked-up guys, maybe gym teachers, who looked like they wanted to fire a dodge ball at my head.

I then noted that just last week, in a tweet that sailed mostly under the radar, Trump, who has sued journalists for writing unflattering stories about him in the past, proposed weakening the laws protecting a free press. “The failing @nytimes has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years,” he wrote, ominously adding, “Change libel laws?”

Eviscerating the laws protecting publishing (which is not unimaginable if Senate Republicans eliminate the filibuster for legislation, as some observers believe will happen) would make it much harder for journalists to do our jobs exposing public corruption and corporate malfeasance and much easier for the super-rich and big business to suppress the truth.

The Trump administration’s assault on the media goes beyond attempts at intimidation. The president’s recent budget proposal would eliminate the relatively modest government support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one of the most respected sources of news in the country.

I also pointed out that Trump doesn’t hate all media. In fact, he’s a fan of Alex Jones, a racist radio host who argued that 9/11 was an “inside job” perpetrated by the U.S. government, and that the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, was a “giant hoax.”

Not long after Trump launched his presidential campaign, he appeared as a guest on Jones’s “InfoWars” show to flatter the host. “Your reputation is amazing,” gushed the president, a comment that I still find amazing.

Someone walked out about then. Not slinked out to the bathroom, but marched out in audible disgust. Now I know how comedians feel when they bomb.

Maybe some history will work, I thought to myself.

Our Founding Fathers understood that a vibrant, independent press and a well-informed citizenry stood in the way of tyranny and was essential to the success of their “experiment,” as they referred to democracy. That’s why they included freedom of the press in the First Amendment. Unfortunately, only 11% of Americans could identify “freedom of the press” as a constitutionally enshrined First Amendment right, according to the Newseum Institute.

Thomas Jefferson, who endured intense scrutiny from reporters during his presidency, nevertheless consistently defended the field of journalism. “Were it left to me,” he wrote in 1787, “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”

Donald Trump’s war on the press has prompted protests from prominent members of his own party. Former president George W. Bush, hardly a liberal, pointed out that “we need the media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”

Without a free press, Sen. John McCain worried “that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time — that’s how dictators get started.”

That approach didn’t work either, so I wrapped up, explaining that the administration’s palpable hostility prompts some media organizations to rededicate themselves to the mission of public interest journalism and others to cower in fear and engage in self-censorship. And, that editorial cartoonists are arguably the most vulnerable of journalism’s foot soldiers, given the simple power of their expression. A vulnerability shown by the number of full-time cartoonists at newspapers dropping, from about 2000 in the year 1900, to around 90 when I published my book in 2007, and fewer than 30 today.

Killed by the Tampa Tribune, 2005. Image by Reprinted with permission of Paul Combs.

“You’ve been a terrific audience…”

“Keepin’ it light, David,” said one of my hosts, who later delivered the news by phone that my talk to the students the next day would be canceled due to a “scheduling conflict.” I am pretty sure that the other authors, who discussed less contentious topics, such as the teacher who first inspired them to read, spoke right on schedule.

The students arguably are the ones losing out. They would have benefited from a interacting with a professional journalist with experience on “the front lines of world news and politics,” and by civilly discussing polarizing issues with someone they might not necessarily agree with.

Still, I learned a few lessons from the experience: The divisions in this country are deeper than I expected; people seem less willing than ever to engage in debate, and the status of the press — down to about 20% in 2016 from 51% in 1979, according to Gallup — is seriously damaged, hindering our ability to effectively communicate sometimes difficult-to-digest truths.

On the bright side, at least I didn’t have to eat lunch in the cafeteria.

David Wallis is the Forward’s opinion editor. Contact him at [email protected]

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