Nov 15: The Day of the Imprisoned Writer

"Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one's thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down" - Frederick Douglass

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Do I risk prison for writing this? Only if there is a grammar police.

Our nation’s first amendment acknowledges our fundamental human right to speak freely and to publish what we believe. There should be no physical consequences administered by our government for doing so. Unless of course it risks our national security. But who decides that? What does national security even mean? And, what if an elected President is a national security threat? Or he/she destroys the career of a journalist or citizen, or incites violence against them? Good thing we live in this great country where individuals can’t be imprisoned for such acts. At least for now.

By Chuck Woolery, Social Activist–and not the TV Host

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer is an annual international day intended to recognize this possibility and support writers who resist repression of freedom of expression. Standing up for this special right needs us all.


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

On December 10th, we get a second chance to promote this vital right. It’s the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Oh, how great the world would be IF that were made an enforceable world law.

That won’t happen anytime soon. Our entrenched system of International law ensures that each nation state retains the right to do whatever it wants to journalists. Just ask…oh wait. He was dismembered in a Saudi Embassy in Turkey. But he didn’t go to prison. And Turkey is considered to be one the world’s greatest defenders of freedom of speech by journalists. Oh wait. That’s something their government said. It must be true because no living Turkish journalist disputes it.

Seriously, this special day is to encourage defending imprisoned writers. It was started in 1981 by PEN International — Writers in Prison Committee. PEN International is a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921. The association has autonomous centers in over 100 nations to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers globally. Their other goals include emphasis of literature in developing mutual understanding and world culture; advocating freedom of expression and to act as a powerful voice on behalf of harassed, imprisoned writers who are sometimes killed for expressing their views in writings.

Obviously, more power is needed to enforce their reasonable standards globally. But, International law makes that impossible.

In addition to raising public awareness of persecuted writers in general, PEN also uses this day to motivate others to take direct action to help specific writers who are persecuted or imprisoned. Each writer they select is from different parts of the world. And each case represents circumstances of repression by governments or other powerful entities, that feel threatened by what the writers have written. Donations and ‘letters of appeal’ are encouraged.

Country leaders guilty of violating these individuals’ rights quake at just the thought of receiving letters of appeal. Oh wait. I think I dreamed that.

The day also commemorates all the writers killed since the previous year. Ten years ago, at least 39 writers were killed in just one year under such circumstances.

We should feel proud that here in the ‘land of the free’ and what was once ‘the home of the brave’, that freedom will never be prohibited…any more than it has…. until after Thanksgiving.

Governments know that War is the best excuse for restricting freedom of expression. That’s why they avoid wars. Oh wait. We are now in a permanent war against terrorism. Oh wait. Terrorism isn’t even a thing that can be destroyed with a bomb. In fact, nearly every bomb that kills a suspected terrorist ends up killing people who were not terrorists.

Our media calls these deaths collateral damage. Those on the receiving end call them mom, dad, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, nephew, sweet heart… And then we wonder why we can’t win such a war.

Fact is, freedom of speech and expression is never recognized as being absolute. Common limitations to freedom of speech include libel, slander, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copywrite violations, trade secrets, food labeling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, public security, and perjury. Wow. Looks like it’s a miracle we can write anything at all that could make a difference. But It’s not like people will believe anything that they don’t already believe.

A guy named John Stewart Mill wrote a book On Liberty with a focus on limiting freedom of expression. He proposed the ‘harm principle’ which suggests that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” So maybe speech can be limited by government for the greater good.


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But under that principle no leader should be able to send his/her troops into war where innocent people will be harmed, even killed. Unless, of course, government leaders are not considered a “member of a civilized community”. Then, international law makes sense. As does Gandhi’s words. When a journalist asked him “what do you think about western civilization?” Gandhi replied “I think that would be a good idea!”.

So now a terrifying idea. With the evolution of social media an ‘offensive principle’ is increasingly used to justify limiting speech that might be offensive to society. But now offensive language appears to lead to actual murders. And damage to society. China’s government solution is the Golden Shield Project orchestrated by the Ministry of Public Security. It filters potentially unfavorable information from other countries.

What is the penalty if US intelligence agencies provide offensive information to those in mainland China? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Oh wait. I’m guessing nothing good given there’s no international court capable of holding a hearing on such a crime. Or, no international investigation system to find the truth. Perhaps someone in China is willing to write about it. Oh wait. They don’t have that freedom.

We’ll just have to let international law resolve the problem. Oh, wait. The only way International law resolves disputes between nations is with war, sanctions (which can be deadlier than war), or diplomacy. That last one appears to be working well in the Middle East. Oh, wait. Give it a chance. They’ve only been doing it for 50 years. They should be close to a resolution by now. Oh, wait. Things there are going ballistic as I write this. Perhaps someone over there will write about what’s going on and we will know the truth. Oh, wait. We no longer hold any truths to be self-evident.

Problem is, we can’t wait much longer for human rights to be superior to states’ rights. The evolution of weapons won’t wait for AI to achieve the wisdom needed to fix the suicidal international law system that is sucking us toward Armageddon. Oh, wait. ‘We the people’ have the right to petition our government. Perhaps we shouldn’t wait much longer to get started.

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent, we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. “George Washington

“This is, in theory, still a free country, but our politically correct, censorious times are such that many of us tremble to give vent to perfectly acceptable views for fear of condemnation. Freedom of speech is thereby imperiled, big questions go un-debated, and great lies become accepted, unequivocally as great truths.” — Simon Heffer Source: Daily Mail, 7 June 2000

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” –Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

“The free press is the mother of all our liberties and of our progress under liberty” – Adlai E. Stevenson (American Politician. Governor of Illinois (1949-53) and Ambassador to the United Nations (1961-65). 1900 -1965)

“[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve it’s high purpose when it indices a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with things as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for understanding.” — Justice Potter Stewart  (1915-1985), U. S. Supreme Court Justice. Source: in Free Speech and Political Protest [Marvin Summers], 1967

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people
what they do not want to hear.” — George Orwell
[Eric Arthur Blair] (1903-1950) British author. Source: Animal Farm, 1945

“Without deviation, without exception, without any ifs, buts, or whereases, freedom of speech means that you shall not do something to people either
for the views they express, or the words they speak or write.” — Justice Hugo L. Black (1886-1971) US Supreme Court Justice
Source: One Man’s Stand For Freedom, 1963

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down” – Frederick Douglass


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