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Free speech examined

The ACLU has strongly defended Americans’ right to free speech, which has a University professor exploring how the ACLU has used this right to shape the sexual policy and culture in America.

Dr. Leigh Ann Wheeler, an associate professor at the University, was recently given two fellowships to conduct research on her latest project ‘Liberating Sex: How the American Civil Liberties Union Shaped Policy and Culture in the Twentieth-Century United States.’

Her research will be aided next semester by a fellowship from BGSU’s Institute for the Study of Culture and Society and in 2007 by a $40,000 National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.

Wheeler aims to answer many questions about the ACLU’s connection with sexuality in her project.

‘I’m trying to answer questions such as how and why did the ACLU become involved in issues related to sexuality, what internal debates shaped the ACLU’s evolving policies on these issues and how did the ACLU influence broader cultural understandings of sexuality, amongst other things,’ Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s research will eventually result in a book. It will also aid in her teaching, as she believes it has already done so in her course, ‘History of Media and Censorship.’

Wheeler became interested in the American Civil Liberties Union and their connection to sexual policy while she was working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. She taught an honors seminar there, titled ‘Rethinking Pornography and Hate Speech,’ and asked her students how they would feel if their partner brought pornographic materials into their home.

The response of the female students was that pornography puts them at unease personally, but that they wouldn’t ask their partner to remove it from their home because they didn’t want to infringe on his freedom of speech.

Wheeler wondered why the women associated being critical of pornography with showing support for censorship. She found her answer after reading a book by the president of the ACLU, which states that we are living in a sexual culture that has been greatly influenced by the ACLU.

Wheeler feels the ACLU is responsible for a greater tolerance of pornography in our society because they treat the issue as free speech and campaign heavily against censorship.

‘The ACLU has played a major role in stretching understandings of the First Amendment to include obscenity, a category of expression that has traditionally been excluded from constitutional protection, and expanding definitions of censorship to include any activity that might curtail the production, dissemination, or consumption of sexual material,’ Wheeler said. ‘The ACLU has accomplished these things in a variety of ways, including litigation, brief writing, and public education. It has contributed to popular acceptance of pornography as something to which every American has a ‘right’.’

Chadwick Roberts, a doctorate student and graduate instructor in the women’s studies department, has been working with Wheeler and does research on contemporary obscenity cases.

According to Roberts, Wheeler wants people to have a more open discussion on the issue and be able to criticize porn as being sexist without advocating censorship.

‘Leigh Ann wants people to be able to have a broader debate on pornography. The ACLU has made it impossible to critique pornography without being accused of censorship,’ Roberts said. ‘Feminists are able to critique films and advertising that they deem to be sexist, but the ACLU has made pornography a free speech issue.’

According to Carrie Davis, staff counsel for the ACLU of Ohio, the ACLU is opposed to any limitations on free speech, which includes pornography, but believes speaking out and being critical is important – such as Wheeler is doing.

‘In general the ACLU is opposed to any restrictions on free speech as protected by the First Amendment. There have been arguments made on how pornography harms women: For example, it may cause male aggression and violence towards women and we believe criminal law needs to be enforced against people who may commit violent acts, but we feel that pornography is protected under the First Amendment,’ Davis said.

But according to Wheeler, the ACLU has played a big part in making pornography less susceptible to government regulations.

‘I think the ACLU has played a major role in freeing sexual imagery of legal restraints and government regulations,’ said Wheeler. ‘I think it has contributed to the erosion of critical perspectives on pornography, and delegitimization of individual efforts to keep such material out of their private spaces.’

Wheeler believes the ACLU has caused a strong divide between those feminists who accept pornography and those who despise it because of its sexist nature.

‘Some feminists think pornography has helped to liberate women’s sexuality, while others think pornography shackles women’s sexuality,’ Wheeler said.

Julie Haught, an English Department lecturer, believes that not all ACLU members will agree on all issues

‘As a feminist and card carrying member of the ACLU, I see no conflict nor do I feel that I am in any way compromising my feminist principles by proceeding cautiously in thinking about what constitutes pornography, what impact pornography has in relationship to violence against women, and other factors that require feminists to think about such issues.’ Haught said. ‘It is rare to find an ACLU member who agrees with every position held by the ACLU and so there are undoubtedly a number of feminists who are ACLU members and who disagree with the ACLU’s vigorous defense of porn as speech,’ Haught said.

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