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By KEN PAULSON
President, First Amendment Center
Last Tuesday would have been Elvis Presley’s 78th birthday, and he’s being widely hailed this week for his musical career.
But it’s also worth noting that Presley was a singular figure in terms of free expression, pushing the envelope while the authorities inevitably pushed back.
Elvis’ early career was almost a constant test of free speech.
In 1955, both Florida and California police warned Presley that he would be arrested if he moved or danced on stage, according to author Eric Nuzum.
When he performed in Los Angeles in 1956, police warned him not to move provocatively and had three movie cameras placed in the auditorium to monitor his movements, according to authors Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave.
Presley’s television appearances generated widespread criticism, so Elvis was shot from the waist up on his third appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in January 1957.
For many young people, this was their first real taste of censorship.
They couldn’t be sure of what was going on below the waist, but they sensed it was important.
Given that history, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised by the news last week that a high school in Utah temporarily canceled “All Shook Up,” a play incorporating Elvis’ hit songs, after someone complained about sexually suggestive lyrics.
The school has refused to say which Elvis song sparked the controversy, but the Salt Lake Tribune reports that the song has been removed and the show will go on.
It’s a measure of Presley’s music that it continues to be played all over the globe and a measure of his style that he can still startle the easily offended.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and in Washington, D.C. Previously, Paulson served as the editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today.