Though politics are growing more polarized, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers said artists need not shy away from them in their work. While they shouldn’t feel pressured to take a side, he said, entertainers should also recognize that it’s okay to use their platforms as a means of making political statements.
“When you see government cutting arts programs in schools and trying to demonize Hollywood,” Rogers said, “I think it’s really important for artists to stand up.”
Rogers, who was fired from the Post-Gazette in June for works critical of President Trump, spoke Nov. 1 at a panel on free speech and censorship held at the Carnegie Stage. He was joined by attorney John Gisleson of the Pittsburgh law firm Morgan and Lewis, and by the American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh Vice President Brenda Lee Green.
The three discussed challenges to personal expression from the government and in the workplace following a screening of the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” organized by Jump Cut Theater. Censorship, Green said, can largely be divided into two categories: hard censorship, which involves government interference with free expression or assembly, and soft censorship, such as self-censorship in private conversation and editorial decision-making in newsrooms.
While the U.S. Constitution does allow for some forms of soft censorship, Green said, it can still cause harm. She pointed for example to the NFL’s apparent blackballing of Colin Kaepernick in response to his protests of institutional racism during the playing of the national anthem.
“People are affected very negatively by that, but it’s not a constitutional issue,” Green said.
Rogers said that Post-Gazette editorial leadership, whom he jokingly compared to the thought police of the film and novel, were similarly protected in firing him.
Panelists and audience members also took aim at Trump during the evening, comparing among other things his rhetoric regarding a Central American migrant caravan bound for the U.S.-Mexico border to the totalitarian government demonization of its political opponents in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Gisleson said that while misinformation and propaganda are present in our world as in Orwell’s, the United States bears little resemblance to the oppressive dystopia portrayed in the film. Still, he said, it is on the citizenry to use the First Amendment responsibly and remain vigilant of its invocation in defense of hate, which he said can result in tragedies like the October shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
“The difference in the movie compared to where we are now is that we can question — and we should question — and we need to be informed,” Gisleson said. “What the movie teaches and what a lot of our political discourses teaches us is that you can’t simply accept what people tell you. You need to question, you need to be informed, and you need to raise your voice when you’re confronted with information, with facts, with hate which aren’t true.”
Matthew Guerry is a Tribune-Review contributor.