Call to Arms to Defend Free Speech; Local Prosecutors "Are Drafting Citizen Decency Squads to Roam Counties in Search of Dirty Comic Books"

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THE PRESS SHOULD join with other institutions in "preaching to the choir" to combat a growing assault on free speech, Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at Freedom Forum, told an assemblage of journalists ha San Francisco.

"I'm appalled at how we have carved our community into free-speech ghettos -- press goes one way, speech another, religion yet another. You would be surprised how our interests coincide," he said.

Speaking recently at the third annual California First Amendment Assembly, "The Foundation of Freedom," McMasters warned about current "panic" for censorship sounding from the halls of Congress to local governments, prosecutors, schools, libraries and courtrooms.

"No First Amendment freedom goes unchallenged," McMasters said, citing moves by Congress, schools and local authorities to censor the Internet. Local prosecutors, he continued, "are drafting citizen decency squads to roam counties in search of dirty comic books and dirty videos," while Texas and Maryland legislators are trying to ban state investments in music companies that produce offensive lyrics. In religion, he noted, a judge wants to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and citizen groups campaign to teach creationism in public schools.

The press, McMasters said, "is constantly under siege, battling 200-million-dollar libel awards and plaintiffs' new 'trash-tort' legal strategies," and state and federal lawmakers are using Princess Diana's death to propose limits on coverage of public figures," he said. "We have to ask ourselves: Are such constant attacks on free expression indicators of the First Amendment's poor health? Or are they symptoms of a larger illness in our society? Is democracy itself diseased?"

McMasters, former associate director of USA Today's editorial pages and a past president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), suggested the answers can be found in Americans' attitudes toward free speech. …