Silencing ourselves by censoring others

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Last week a London theater was forced to shut down a play permanently after 400 Sikhs stormed the theater, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The rioters said the play, written by Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, was disrespectful of their religion.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, the information ministry was working feverishly to get radio and television stations to stop playing a popular song, “Leaving the Monkhood for Love.” The nation is 90% Buddhist, so many Cambodians were understandably offended by lyrics about a monk who forsakes the pagoda for a woman.

Most Americans no doubt regard such dispatches from around the globe as quaint and distant. After all, we have the First Amendment, which protects literary and artistic expression from official censorship, while its spirit counsels against unofficial suppression of speech.


Well, not quite, not always.

Any smugness Americans might feel about their free-speech rights must be tempered by the personal, societal and governmental disagreements that betray free-speech guarantees all too frequently. At a time when giving offense often seems to be part of the marketing strategy for many of our efforts involving art, literature and pop culture, we see constant clashes in which the majority tries to force its views on the minority, or the minority tries to limit the majority’s expression of its views.

As long as these clashes merely involve both sides raising their voices in defense of their views, it’s a truly American exercise to be celebrated. But too often, they devolve into a distinctly un-American exercise in which expression is suppressed, either through official action or other forms of coercion — or by threats.

Of that we can’t be proud.

What should be especially sobering to us are the instances in which censorship in closed societies abroad and censorship at home become indistinguishable from one another.

Take for example the saga of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer whose work on behalf of human rights and democracy has brought her accolades around the world and threats and prison at home. In 2003, she became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Forced to defy Iranian authorities as an independent lawyer after being removed from the judiciary (clerics said she was too “emotional”), Ebadi wanted desperately to tell the story of how even in a repressive society Islamic women still could make a difference in their lives and the world.

But she could not publish a book in Iran because it “would either be banned altogether or censored to such an extent that it would be rendered useless,” she wrote last month in The New York Times. So she turned to the United States, even though publishing a book here would expose her to great risk in Iran.

She was dismayed to discover, however, that her book couldn’t be published in the United States, either. In fact, American publishers faced up to 10 years in prison and $1 million in fines if they dared to help her.

How could that be? Because the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department had re-interpreted decades-old trade-embargo regulations to require publishers, writers and translators to obtain a government license before publishing literature originating from such countries as Iran, Cuba, Sudan, Libya and Syria.

Resisting the pernicious idea of book licensing for the same reasons that John Milton wrote Areopagitica protesting the 17th century book-licensing act in England, American publishers and others filed lawsuits challenging the policy. Meanwhile, Ebadi — as well as scientists, academics and writers from sanctioned nations — were silenced in the United States. And citizens of the most open society in the world were denied access to their words of wisdom and dissent.

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department office — after a change of leadership and mind — reversed course by lifting most of the restrictions on the publication of foreign writing. A Treasury undersecretary, Stuart Levey, conceded that the regulations had been interpreted “as discouraging the publication of dissident speech from within these oppressive regimes.” He added: “That is the opposite of what we want.”


It is an almost irresistible impulse for individuals and governments to try to silence expression they do not wish to hear. That is why censorship creeps all too easily into a society even as free as our own. Legally speaking, censorship involves an action ordered or taken by government. But in a democracy such as ours, censorship cannot happen without our consent, tacit or explicit.

In other words, we muzzle ourselves when we seek, sanction or ignore efforts to silence even the speech we do not like.

“What is the difference between the censorship in Iran and this censorship in the United States?” Shirin Ebadi asks. “Human rights, including the freedom to read whatever one wishes, are universal values that transcend national boundaries.”

And censorship, wherever it occurs and whoever causes it, defiles the very notion of freedom.