With gay marriage and legal pot on our doorsteps, I have found that my youthful indiscretions have become my life's achievements. For me, it was never a difficult jump to advocate for these issues. They always seemed fair, right and moderate. The rest of the world — I learned — did not think so.
I found this out within days of becoming the editor of a weekly community youth newspaper on Long Island in 1970. The Nassau Herald needed an editor for its supplement, named 'Youthquake,' designed to capture the intensity of the youth movement sweeping the nation. I jumped at the chance.
In my very first issue, I decided to expose the fraud of institutional religion. I tried to show that Jesus Christ was viewed in his day in a manner not unlike a lot of student protestors in 1970. He was a disheveled heretic- an outcast whose views were offensive to the establishment and powers that be.
As my first cover, I ran the picture of Jesus Christ you see on this page. You may recognize it, because 44 years later, it ran as a paid advertisement in SFGN's Christmas issue last month. The response was mild, but shocking. Some people called it 'offensive.' Others asked why I would dare run it during the holidays. Honestly though, if you want to pan religion, can there be a better time than contemporary Christmas holidays- which have now become a shopper's bazaar in a mall, rather than a midnight mass in a house of prayer?
In 1970 though, anytime was not a good time to mock Jesus. One day after the poster appeared, someone ripped the page with the picture out of the paper, wrapped it up in a rock, and threw it through the window of the Nassau Herald on Central Avenue in Lawrence, NY. With it was a little note inviting me to drop dead, preferably by dinnertime. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last.
In 1980, after relocating to South Florida, I went on a local radio show and called for the legalization of marijuana. Somebody shot out the windows of my law office on East Las Olas Boulevard the next day. I could easily have been killed, but a 55-gallon fish tank opposite my desk swallowed up and drowned the bullets. It made good copy for the Fort Lauderdale News, and sent another message to me about the mortality of being a journalist.
Still, nothing matched hosting a daily radio show for accumulating death threats. In the 1990's, as the morning drive talk host for WFTL 1400 AM, I collected a decade's worth of hate mail. I saved them all, first reading them on the air and then posting them on the station wall, just in case. I joked that I was just trying to insure the crime scene investigators have easy access to leads if my time came.
Hate mail and death threats leave you feeling conflicted. On one hand, they validate your mission, giving you an inner strength and courage. On the other hand, you know we live in a world full of crazy people, and the religious bible thumpers are the worst. There really are mentally obsessed zealots out there who felt sodomites like me were bringing down families, civilization and marriage.
Why were these people so afraid of me? How do I threaten them? It's my body, and I am an adult. Whether it's a pepperoni pizza, a pot pipe or a penis, shouldn't I be able to determine what I put in it? How does my personal predispositions threaten their god, their family, their life?
The more I thought about the murders in Paris last week, the more I looked back on my own life. I could have written an impassioned article on the importance of free speech today. But I find myself a lot more reflective these days, thinking its time to start collecting memories and writing memoirs, recalling my own days where radicalism carried risks. So here I am, sharing the past.
Photo: Kari Pricher/CNN
The first threat I ever received came when I was a sports reporter for the Hofstra Chronicle in 1967 and mocked the varsity football team as 'desperate and disabled.' A couple of the defensive ends offered to toss me off the roof of one of the dormitories, so I could really find out what 'disabled' meant. Ironically, that dorm is now called 'Bill of Rights' Hall.
You probably don't know this, but there is an international group titled 'The Committee to Protect Journalists.' It is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. Why? Because, whether you know it or not, 61 journalists were murdered worldwide in 2014, and not all by ISIS. What happened in Paris last week demonstrates that 2015 has not gotten off to a good start either.
From protesting the war in Vietnam to fighting for the civil rights of gays and lesbians, to the legalization of marijuana, I have been an advocate for unpopular causes. When you become a gadfly, pricking the powers that be, you are afflicting the comfortable. Power always fights back. The NSA and the CIA may be today's villains, but yesterday there was J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Sometimes, the zealots you are fighting are paid for by our own taxes. Mocking them is what we journalists do.
Fortunately, I have lived long enough to see my message go mainstream. Like the cartoonists in France, I have used a microphone or a pen. This week, SFGN pays tribute to them and all those who stand up and speak out. We have a calling that won't go away, and it's the voice of a free press.
In my law practice, I have been lucky enough to represent guys like Al Goldstein, who published SCREW Magazine, and Neil Rogers, who, if he was not dead, would be telling you to go screw yourself- and I would be defending his right to do so. What's popular is not always right, and what's right is not always popular. Whether it's a satirical cartoon, critical column, or public speech, the world is a healthier place when voices are heard and not silenced.
In June of 1963, when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy stood at the Berlin Wall, and pointed to the lack of freedoms on the Eastern side, he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” that today ‘we are all Berliners.’ Last week, we heard the collective voice of the world say “Je suis, Charlie’ meaning ‘I am Charlie.’ It means we all are one. We will not be afraid. The bullets of a false revenge will not silence the universal voice of a free press. Others will rise in their stead, even stronger and more resolute.
Witnesses said the Al Qaeda gunmen headed straight for the paper's editor and cartoonist, Stephane Charbonnier, killing him and his police bodyguard. The security had been recruited to protect him after extremists firebombed the offices in 2011 over a satirical cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed.
A year later, Charbonnier remarked about the threats against his life, declaring: 'I would rather die standing than live kneeling.' So must we all.
Ultimately, the unconscionable murders in Paris do not shut voices down, anymore than blowing up a Negro church in Alabama killing schoolgirls stopped the civil rights movement in America. Instead, these incidents give life to a free press everywhere, so much so that a gay paper in South Florida covers the events in Paris as if they happened around the corner. Why? Because when it comes to free thought, we are all brothers. We are all ‘Charlie.’