Censors say the darnedest things

Sunday, March 27, 2005

All of us are censors. When we encounter expression we don’t like, we walk away, turn the page or switch the channel. That is our right.

That right is transformed into censorship, however, in the hands of someone who has the authority to punish or silence the speaker.

For some government officials, the temptation to censor is sometimes irresistible. They are convinced that some Americans just can’t be trusted with freedom of speech — high school students, library patrons, artists and others who, they believe, should be just sort-of citizens when it comes to First Amendment protections.

Power in the hands of the censor, of course, is like a chainsaw in the hands of a fool. Something is going to get mangled sooner or later. Often it is logic and common sense.

For example, we usually think of the censor’s wrath as directed at obscenity, hate speech, violence in the media, that sort of thing. More often, however, the target of the censor is much more mundane and the reasons given for suppression much more convoluted than we have a right to expect.

As evidence, here are a few items gleaned from recent news reports and commentary showing how censors can think and say the darnedest things:

  • A Detroit airport customs inspector ordered the seizure of artwork, including 33 passports for the art project “State of Sabotage,” two ink pads, four rubbers stamps and photo-fastening equipment. They were in the luggage of artist Robert Jelinek and headed for an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. The inspector believed the items violated a prohibition against articles advocating treason, insurrection or forcible resistance to U.S. law, and if not that, they were either obscene or immoral.

  • In Pilot Point, in northern Texas, police threatened to prosecute an artist who painted a mural on the exterior of his gallery depicting the creation of Eve, whose breasts were bare. To stay out of court or jail, the artist covered Eve’s breasts with “Crime Scene” tape. The police said the artwork violated a local law that criminalized the sale or display of hard-core pornography to children.

  • Veterans for Peace and a Quaker group set up tables in a Cookeville, Tenn., high school with material about the war in Iraq and military careers and alternatives. School officials banned the “offensive material” and imposed new restrictions on future appearances at the school. Military recruiters and other groups remain exempt from those restrictions. The officials said they acted after receiving calls from some parents who thought some of the banned material was “anti-American” and “anti-military.”

  • America (The Book), on the best-seller list for 15 weeks, ran into trouble with library officials in two Mississippi counties. The satirical book by comedian Jon Stewart had on one page a photo with the faces of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices superimposed over nude bodies. “Our libraries are not a trash bin for pornographic materials,” said one official. “We’re not an adult bookstore,” sniffed another.

  • In Houston, the mayor didn’t wait for the library to act. He summarily ordered the public library to remove from open shelves 12 copies of another best seller, a porn queen’s autobiography. “We didn’t see a need to go through a long bureaucratic process,” said Mayor Bill White. All the copies were immediately checked out by library patrons and a long waiting list began to grow.

    There are countless other such examples just from the last few months, including the Minnesota state senator pushing a law regulating the sale of video games to minors who reportedly responded to a question about the constitutionality of her bill by saying, “Who says children have First Amendment rights? How is that relevant?”

    Then there are those who beat the censors to the punch and censor themselves, such as ABC executives who ordered the script of a recent “Boston Legal” episode to be scrubbed of any mention of a rival network, apparently to avoid competitor criticism or government scrutiny.

    So while censors twist themselves into logic pretzels by saying the darnedest things, the self-censors limit their creative rights by obsessing about offense.

    It would be easy to pass all this off as just so much silliness. But the occurrences are too frequent and the consequences too deep to ignore.

    When government functionaries decide to regulate the speech of American citizens, at the least we should demand justification that is clear and cogent.

    During a lecture at Harvard in 1968, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said, “My view is, without deviation, without exception, without any ifs, buts, or whereases, that freedom of speech means that government shall not do anything to people … either for the views they have or the views they express or the words they speak or write.”

    Some may regard those words as too absolutist for a civil society, but the principle Justice Black espoused is far more protective of individual rights and a vital democracy than allowing petty officials here and there to quietly chip away at fundamental freedoms without note or challenge.

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