Censorship by any other name is so much easier

Sunday, August 14, 2005

There was a time when Penny Nance was unimpressed with the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to clean up television. In a bylined article published by The Washington Times on May 5, 2003, she criticized then-chairman Michael Powell’s “past indifference” to “sexual themes and even soft-core pornography” on TV.

“There are plenty of cases where television content violates the FCC’s standards,” she wrote. “But the FCC hasn’t acted on a single complaint.”

That was then. Now, the well-known advocate for protecting children from indecency on television, the Internet and the movies is working for the FCC.

Nance is serving as a special adviser in the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, according to a recent article by Todd Shields in Mediaweek. Aides in the office of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin couldn’t tell Shields when Nance started to work at the FCC or much about her actual duties, other than that she is advising the commission on “broadcast- and cable-related consumer and social issues,” and that the position “serves as liaison and provides outreach to Congress, public interest groups and the industry.”

Last year, the FCC proposed $7.9 million in fines against broadcasters, many times more than in any other period in the commission’s history. Given the strong views Nance has expressed as an activist and lobbyist and in congressional testimony, her arrival at the FCC may signal an invigorated FCC campaign against allegedly indecent programming.

Campaigns to cleanse popular culture of indecency are nothing new, of course.

One of the most notorious occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These efforts were supported by the public, even the newspapers, and led by such zealous anti-indecency warriors as Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Comstock was on a self-proclaimed mission from God. Armed with new federal and state laws and a post office badge, he roamed New York streets in search of trash that threatened society. He prowled bookstores and newsstands, even post offices, arresting vendors and booksellers and harassing publishers and their customers. He went after books, newspapers, magazines, even photographs of French masterpieces.

In an accounting of his work toward the end of his career, Comstock proudly listed 3,646 prosecutions and 2,682 convictions, the destruction of 28,425 pounds of printing plates, 16,900 photographic negatives, 3,984,063 photographs and 50 tons of books. In addition, he claimed to have caused 15 suicides.

It wasn’t just pornography that Comstock and others were targeting. They also found indecency in many other kinds of information: sex education, health and hygiene, birth control, family planning, and marital advice, to name a few. Material containing such fare was deemed unfit for the young and the weak of mind — thus everyone had to forfeit the choice to read it.

The price for cleaning up culture can be high, especially when the good gets banned with the bad.

In late 1929, for example, a censorship dragnet in Boston swept up 68 now-classic books by such prominent authors as Sherwood Anderson, Bertrand Russell, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley.

Some would argue that it would be a stretch to compare the age of comstockery with today’s sincere efforts by good people to clean up popular culture. But surely that experience suggests that there is a real danger in trying to sort out the good and bad in popular culture while immersed in it.

No matter which medium we’re dealing with — books, television, movies, the Internet — the real targets of indecency campaigns are words and images. Words and images, of course, are what we use to communicate ideas, beliefs and imaginings. They provide the means with which a society builds a community and a nation carries itself forward.

When we deem certain words or images, or speakers, offensive or unworthy, we must invent the thought crime — what we imagine someone might think or do when provoked by ideas and imaginings. When we do that, we must submit ourselves to the judgment of the future. What will our grandchildren and their children say when they look back on what we have done in the name of our children? What will we have given away of their rights as well as their legacy?

The idea of setting more boundaries for speech and fewer boundaries for censorship should always give pause.

Decency advocates are so intent on their objective, so convinced of their rightness and so submerged in their own time that they always should be aware of the possibility of mistake. Otherwise, they fall victim to the sort of hubris that led Comstock to dismiss the redoubtable George Bernard Shaw as “this Irish smut-dealer.”

Good and smart people differ over what indecency means. But there are two ways we can respond when dealing with whatever it is that we determine indecency to be. The easy way is to get a government official or agency to ban it or regulate it. The hard way is to engage it, decry it, discourage it, present a better alternative.

That is the hard way, but it should be the American way.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.

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