Free Speech: How Free Is Too Free? Violent Images Bombard TV Viewers. Hate Crimes on Campus Are Growing. Was This What the Makers of the Constitution Had in Mind When They Protected Free Speech? the Boundaries of Free Speech

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CAN America no longer afford the First Amendment? Or is the First Amendment more important today than ever before?

These stark choices are implied in the debate raging in the United States over society's proper response to an unprecedented climate of offensive and perhaps harmful expression.

"The media and the pornography industry are working overtime to ensure that our society is filled with sexual messages," says Joanne Masokowski, founder of Protect the Children Resource Center in Concord, Calif.

The controversy centers most around two kinds of expression: obscenity and hate speech. These are the cutting-edge issues of free speech in America.

* Obscenity. Movies, television, heavy metal and rap music, and printed pornography - popular culture is filled with it. Pop stars like Madonna, the rap group 2 Live Crew, and comedian Andrew Dice Clay spew forth degrading words and employ sexually suggestive gestures in their acts.

True "obscenity" as defined by the Supreme Court enjoys no First Amendment protection, since the justices have said that child pornography and hard-core porn that meets the court's obscenity test aren't "speech." State and local governments actively prosecute producers and distributors of obscene materials, says Deen Kaplan of the National Coalition Against Pornography in Cincinnati. More than 90 percent of the pornography cases brought to juries result in guilty verdicts, Mr. Kaplan says.

Beyond legally proscribed obscenity, however, is a vast realm of soft-core porn and other sexually-oriented forms of speech that government can't outlaw.

Government shouldn't wield scissors in a free society, says Rodney A. Smolla, director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at William & Mary Law School and an opponent of censorship.

Professor Smolla notes that many artistic works which, whether one approves of them or not, have made important statements and were greeted with indignant calls for suppression - from James Joyce's "Ulysses" to the recent film "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Smolla also worries about the "hidden political agenda" in much censorship. "It's no coincidence that censorship is often targeted against society's fringe groups," he says.

Defenders of even the most extreme rap lyrics, for instance, contend that the music is an authentic expression of the powerlessness and rage felt by many blacks, and thus is politically significant speech deserving of First Amendment protection.

The libertarian's customary remedy for people offended by obscene speech is simply to turn away from it; one isn't forced to read Hustler or view an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, they say.

Yet turning away is becoming increasingly difficult in a society inundated with sexual imagery.

And many parents are particularly alarmed about the exposure of children to sexually explicit expression through recordings, cable TV, and dial-porn. Thus, calls are rising for such private-sector measures as warning labels on recordings and self-censorship by film and TV producers.

An emerging element in the debate over obscenity that could alter its terms is the question of the harm it causes. Women's and children's groups are intensifying research into possible links between pornography and deviant behavior.

Mr. Kaplan of the National Coalition Against Pornography says researchers are finding high statistical correlations between porn and sex crimes. If their data come to be broadly accepted, some sexually-oriented materials currently protected as speech could be viewed more as harmful substances subject to government regulation.

* Hate speech: Invective against minorities, women, Jews, homosexuals, and other victims of bigotry. Manifestations of bigotry are rising throughout American culture, but intolerance has become a cause of special alarm on college campuses, where incidents of bigotry have skyrocketed in recent years. …