I just don’t abide censorship

Kern County sheriff’s technical investigator Tom Jones details the scene near Glennville, California, where two gay men, Sidney Moses Wooster, 26, and Jack Blankenship, 38, were shot and killed by Bakersfield businessman William Robert Tyack, 42. The judge, John Nairn, is to Jones’ right, prosecutor Joe Beckett is at far right and defense attorney Timothy Lemucci is next to him. The picture was taken down by administrators of a large, 18,000-plus Facebook history group, because of fever-pitched reaction, including anti-gay comments by several members.
Comments to this photo of United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez, which I shot in 1983, were so brutally negative that there was no doubt in my mind it too would have been removed, but I withdrew from the group before administrators did so.

To my friends: I have withdrawn from the 18,000-plus member Facebook group “Kern County of Old” and have removed all of the contributions I’ve made to the site after the group’s administrators removed one of my photos.

Two days ago, I posted a photo that I shot in 1982, and was published in The Bakersfield Californian, of a remarkable piece of Kern County history: a visit by the court, the jury and the media to the site of the killings of two gay men by a Bakersfield business owner, William Robert Tyack. Reaction to the photo was fierce and quite fever-pitched, and sadly, some comments were way out of line with a handful of anti-gay trolls degrading the conversation. As a result, the site’s administrators chose to remove the photo.

I was provided an explanation by an administrator, and I thank him for it. Unfortunately, it is not acceptable to me, given my position as an educator whose very essence is defined by a fervent opposition to censorship and an insistence that all views – including unpopular views and views I might not agree with – be tolerated. The administrators invited me to re-post the photo with the caveat that nobody will be permitted to comment on it. To agree to this would essentially be violating the very anti-censorship principles that inform every moment of my teaching. Because my massive collection of photos involve significant past news events – some quite notorious, as is the nature of photojournalism – I cannot agree to the posting of truly historic photos that members of the group may or may not be allowed to comment on.

Additionally, a photo I posted this morning of Cesar Chavez conducting a United Farm Workers meeting in 1983 – also a published Bakersfield Californian assignment – elicited an overwhelming number of anti-Chavez and anti-UFW responses and while administrators did not take that photo down, I was relatively sure they were going to remove it, too, given that these comments were equally as vile as some of the murder trial comments.

It wasn’t too long into my career I began to learn hard lessons about the nuances of censorship. And I came to form an opinion, which I still hold, that of all forms of censorship, self censorship is the most insidious of all. When you are made to be afraid to post or comment or, in this case, share pictures that have real value to our area’s history, because of a fear of others’ responses and reactions, or acquiescing to their views that history is best when it is wiped clean of its sometimes unsavory and gritty reality, that is the chilling effect at its very worst, and I will have no part of it.

Understand, this is not a legal issue, it is a moral issue. “Kern County of Old” has a right to control the content of its page, and I have a right to decide the manner and means in which I decide to share my photos. All of the photos I have removed from Kern County of Old are posted on my blog or on Facebook. It was nice sharing some of them with such a wide audience, but I can no longer do so under their terms, then walk into my classes at Cal State Bakersfield and Bakersfield College and in good conscience lecture about the importance and value of free thought, the free exchange of ideas and why, I hope, my students will some day come to oppose censorship with the same fervor I do.