In her 1978 essay, “A First Amendment Junkie,” Susan Jacoby argues for an “absolute interpretation” of the First Amendment, even in cases of controversial forms of expression, such as pornography. Jacoby addresses all of the criticisms lodged against her by feminists who are anti-pornography, and concludes that one need not be anti-First Amendment or an advocate of First Amendment rights only for positive, healthy, and socially acceptable expression to be anti-pornography. Rather, in “A First Amendment Junkie” author Susan Jacoby makes the argumentative statement that there is an alternate position that allows one to simultaneously condemn pornography and to safeguard the protections of expression assured Americans by the First Amendment. I agree with Jacoby’s position. First, when we begin to decide what merits expressive protection and what does not, we are making subjective value statements that reflect personal interests and desires. Second, when we establish precedents for protecting the forms of expression that we like and litigating those we dislike, we set a dangerous cycle into motion that assumes that all expressions must be judged not for the creative, artistic, or expressive merit of their content, nor for their very right to exist, but for their appeal. Finally, I agree with Jacoby’s observation that the discourse about pornography and the First Amendment is evidence of our inability to deal with difficult issues maturely. Rather than rush to legal means to address uncomfortable topics, we owe it to ourselves to continue the conversation and learn how to think and dialogue critically.
Jacoby has been a life-long “First Amendment junkie,” and explains that she has been vilified by “many women” she “like[s] and respect[s]” because of her position that the First Amendment should be upheld regardless of the kind of expression that is emitted, even when it is tasteless, vulgar, and offensive. Jacoby admits that she finds pornography to be insulting, but she contests the assumption underlying arguments that pornography constitutes a form of expression that is singularly vile and threatening. She notes that these arguments are based on “the implicit conviction that [pornography] poses a greater threat to women than similarly repulsive exercises of free speech pose to other offended groups.” While she respects the argument that pornography is insulting and demeaning, she rejects the notion that some forms of oppressive expression are more degrading and damaging than other forms. If we decide that pornography is more offensive than anti-Semitic expressions, for instance, what are we saying about the relative value of human lives? Jacoby alludes that the subjectivity of such a decision-making mechanism is perhaps more dangerous than the threatening and repulsive expressions themselves, and I would agree.
The United States is already plagued by litigiousness. If we legislate against expressive rights, then we will only begin our descent on the slippery slope toward a country characterized by its strict controls on all forms of expression. The support and protection of free speech does not mean that one admires, likes, or condones the expressions of pornography. Similarly, the fact that we allow pornography to exist does not mean that we are facilitating the “detrimental social impact” of pornography and other unpalatable expressions, as some critics argue (Bunker, 2001, p. xii). What it simply means is that we can look for means other than legal channels to express our discontent and to engage in productive dialogue that reduces or eliminates the social conditions and attitudes that make such speech attractive to some people. Legal “remedies” will only have negative effects of chilling speech; they will not protect us from what we fear the most.
Jacoby does not enjoy pornography and she does not condone it. She is simply trying to make a reasonable point, and that point is that our collective conversation about controversies such as pornography has become unreasonable and lacking in critical thought. When something “falls short of 100 percent vulgarity,” notes Jacoby in one of the important quotes from “First Amendment Junkie”, we have a hard time talking about it. Instead, we are consumed by “[t]he impulse to censor,” which “places no faith in the possibilities of democratic persuasion” The implications of Jacoby’s argument are significant. If we can’t be mature enough to discuss the issue of pornography, how can we possibly discuss issues that are even more important, such as “rape, abortion, menstruation, contraception, lesbianism in fact, the entire range of sexual experience from a women’s viewpoint.” We must begin to trust one another more and work towards non-legal means of addressing uncomfortable and controversial issues.
Other essays and articles related to this topic in the Arguments Archive include A Reasoned Approach to Medical Marijuana and the Law • Argument in Favor of Legalizing Marijuana for Medical Use • Capital Punishment, Ethics, and Public Opinion • The Multifaceted Argument for Advancing Stem Cell Research
Bunker, Matthew. Critiquing Free Speech: First Amendment Theory and the Challenge of Interdisciplinarity. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.
Jacoby, Susan. “A First Amendment Junkie.” 1978.