Speech police — on the left and right — trample freedom of expression in the name of virtue

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

David Lowenthal, professor emeritus of political science at Boston College, offered an argument for censorship of the entertainment media in an article recently published in The Weekly Standard. Lowenthal is inspired by two convictions: That Hollywood is dishing out too much sex and violence and that we consumers like it too much for our own good.

In a rather remarkable statement to find in one of the nation’s leading conservative publications, Lowenthal wrote, “Government, and government alone, has a chance of blocking this descent into decadence.”

“The choice is clear,” he wrote, “either a rigorous censorship of the mass media — or an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later, of free society itself.”

We must destroy our freedom in order to save it.

The four distinguished commentators asked to respond to Lowenthal’s jeremiad against free speech fumed and fumbled with half-hearted arguments about censorship not being politically practical. They clearly agreed with Lowenthal on one thing: That the Hollywood entertainment industry is the source of most evil in this society.

William Bennett was one of those asked to respond to Lowenthal. Casting himself as a “virtual absolutist on the First Amendment,” Bennett endorsed instead the tactics of the “political correctness” movement as a way to sanitize the media to suit his own tastes. “The goal is to turn the people who are polluting our moral environment into social pariahs,” Bennett wrote. “Think of what would happen to a political figure, sportscaster, or businessman who uttered ugly racial or ethnic slurs. … Our goal should be to see that the same thing happens with entertainment executives.”

So instead of government censorship, Bennett proposed governmental coercion. “Congress ought to begin treating the entertainment industry the same way it treats the gun and tobacco industries,” he said. In other words, government officials should subject the creators of entertainment to the same sort of inquisitions and treatment as the makers of products that actually kill, sicken and injure people.

It’s easy enough for Bennett to take the high road on censorship, of course, since he is not in a position to impose it anyway. But some of his closest allies on this issue — U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Sam Brownback, to name a few — do have the power to impose censorship. Clearly, they are in no mood to wait for public opprobrium to kick in.

In fact, they are busy putting the machinery of censorship in place.

Congress returned from the August recess today, and high on the agenda for Brownback is the creation of a special committee to scrutinize American culture in general and the entertainment media in particular. “We just need to ask where our culture has gone and how do you bring it back to where we all want it,” Brownback said.

Meanwhile, Lieberman and McCain are trying to drum up support for the Media Violence Labeling Act of 1999. This bill, ironically proposed as an amendment to the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, would require the development and enforcement of a uniform labeling system for violent content. It would apply to a variety of media, including movies, records, CDs, and video games. The kicker, of course: The law would restrict the sale of any products carrying the labels.

The Federal Trade Commission already is busy subpoenaing mountains of documents from entertainment producers, inquiring into whether the industry violated its own “voluntary” ratings system in its marketing of products.

The U.S. Surgeon General has been ordered to study the impact and influence of violence in the media.

And Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a staff report that sums up a complicated and highly qualified body of research by asserting that there is a causal link between violence in the media and violence on the street.

This is a well-worn path to censorship.

Today, the charge down that path is led by the speech police who assail popular culture as the weapon of an “institutional elite” that “wraps themselves in the First Amendment” and are bent on destroying society by entertaining it to death.

This insanity begins as always in a rush to save the populace from the influence of coarse language and entertainment. This is in the best tradition of Thomas Bowdler, the 18th century English editor who cleansed various works of literature of “words and expressions — which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Bowdler managed to make the world a better place by publishing expurgated versions of Shakespeare, Gibbons’ history and the Old Testament itself before he wore himself out.

It’s difficult to find any of those safer books these days, but check the dictionary and you will find his most famous legacy, the word “bowdlerized.”

The line from Thomas Bowdler to Anthony Comstock spans a century and an ocean, but it is a straight one. Comstock was the New York zealot who convinced himself and others that America was threatened by unpopular social and religious ideas, such as abortion, birth control and gambling. He boasted of destroying or burning tons of books and periodicals and arresting thousands of people before the nation regained its senses.

Interestingly, campaigns by guardians of our morality to limit and restrict speech always are done in the name of the people. Paradoxically, they do not trust the people to choose for themselves or, having chosen, to think for themselves.

In the minds of the speech police, the rest of us are craven, morally disabled, powerless to resist our worst impulses or the temptations of evil media. We are too uncivilized to understand that censorship is good for us, and we are not to be trusted with an unlabeled video any more than we would be with a lighted cigarette or a loaded gun.

The speech police are everywhere. They traverse the whole political spectrum. The left decries violence in the media. The right laments sex in the media. All sorts of things get caught up in the middle. They justify their zealotry by telling us that there is a higher law than the Constitution and a greater goal than freedom, and that is “virtue.”

There is such a paucity of real ideas about how to solve the ills of our society. So the speech police would have us believe that we cannot be free and virtuous at the same time.

They would have us believe that we are awash in sex and violence.

They would have us believe that reading or viewing violence is tantamount to doing it.

They would have us believe that there is a conspiracy of intellectuals, Hollywood titans, judges and criminals to corrupt our society and lead it into ruin.

And they would have us believe, most remarkably, that the influence of home, family, school and church is no match for the mass media.

A necessary measure of the validity of an idea or movement is the willingness of its proponents to obscure or distort the truth in support of it. The speech police fail that measure.

One wants to believe that those who would save us by censoring us have the best of intentions, but it is difficult. At bottom, the urge to censor and sanitize public discourse and entertainment comes of fear — fear of youth, fear of new technology, fear of tastes and values that don’t match their own.

The fact is that there is a richness, diversity and quality in most of today’s entertainment that gives the lie to the yelps about filth. The fact is that what comes out of Hollywood simply entertains us; it does not define us. It sure as hell does not make us do bad things to other people.

Instead, we are ordinary Americans who have grown rather fond of the freedom to choose and reject what we read and watch. We believe we are quite capable of doing so without losing either our minds or our morals.

In fact, for more than two centuries now, we have shown ourselves to be quite capable of turning bad words, ideas and images into good lessons.

Even so, we’ll always have the censors with us. Our forebears huddled together in fear, starting and trembling at images and ideas dancing out there in the dark. Rather than bringing those images and ideas into the campfire’s glow and confronting them, the tribal guardians shushed the others into silence and hoped that the evil would go away.

Today, the inheritors of that impulse attempt to disembowel the First Amendment in the flickering light of their own fears and misapprehensions.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org .