When the censor within reaches out, watch out

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Have you run into a censor lately? If not, you probably don’t get out much. Or perhaps you just don’t recognize censorship when you see it.

Here are some examples just from the past few days. Look for similar examples in your own neighborhood.

In Miami, a federal judge on July 24 ordered the school board to return all copies of 24 children’s books to the library shelves. The board had removed the books after complaints by some parents.

In Houston, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction on July 25 against state Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents who had been seizing adult materials without getting a court order. The judge also ruled that the law the commission cited as authority was unconstitutional.

In Morgan City, La., the Federal Emergency Management Agency told journalists that residents of trailer parks housing Hurricane Katrina victims were not allowed to talk to the press without a FEMA escort. Only after press coverage did FEMA back away from the speech and press restrictions.

In Everett, Wash., a member of a student wind ensemble filed a First Amendment suit against the school district after school officials wouldn’t allow the playing of “Ave Maria” because they felt it was too religious.

The president of the State University of New York, Fredonia, denied a promotion for a professor who had publicly disagreed with the university’s conduct code and affirmative-action policies.

Camera-toting tourists are startled to hear a voice apparently emanating from the wall of the federal building in Santa Ana, Calif., that warns: “Put away the camera. No picture-taking here.” Across the nation, amateur and professional photographers are arrested, interrogated and have their film and cameras confiscated for taking photos of public buildings and facilities.

So it goes. The list goes on and on. Local, state and federal officials, acting in our name, rush to regulate, silence and punish speech that someone somewhere finds offensive or inappropriate. That situation is aggravated by an increasingly secretive government that punishes dissent, spies on its citizens and threatens to prosecute the press for revealing uncomfortable actions and policies.

And though it does seem contradictory in a nation where First Amendment rights and values hold a favored place in our Constitution and culture, we are not alone in our censorious nature. Censorship is universal and predictable, not an invention of our time or system.

That’s because we are all censors.

We engage our own internal controls to make sure we don’t say or do the wrong thing in public. We compel ourselves and our loved ones to obey and honor the values we hold for ourselves and hope that others would hold.

That internal censor is absolutely essential to a civil and orderly society.

It is when that censor within wanders beyond the boundaries of self that it collides with the principles we profess and the needs of a democratic society. Inevitably, that rogue censor also runs smack into other censors who have escaped their bounds. Some join forces; other lock into the fiercest of battles.

In a society as diverse and challenging as ours, there is much that we would prefer not to have to abide for ourselves or our children. The vast majority of us care deeply about civility, decency and responsibility. We want public discourse and entertainment to reflect and promote our better nature; we want public expression that elevates and inspires rather than degrades and sullies.

Indeed, we have the right — even the obligation — to fight for those principles and values in the public arena, to crowd out bad words and ideas with good ones. That is democracy in its best dress: using reason, passion and persistence to persuade others to our way of seeing things. Ideally, that process leads to a cultural shift that informs and shapes our speech as well as our laws.

It is when we abandon that process by allowing lawmakers and regulators to dictate matters of taste and belief that we betray those democratic ideals. It is worse when government officials, high or petty, take it upon themselves to pander to the most vocal or organized groups to impose their tastes or beliefs on all of us.

Taking inventory from time to time of the routine and sometimes disguised censorship among us reveals the difficulty of keeping the internal censor restrained and the government censor at bay. The internal censor defines individual values; the government censor defiles individual freedom.

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