Monday, October 12, 2009

Not In Front of the Children

Not in Front of the Children, by Marjorie Heins. New York: Hill and Wang (2001).

An attorney with special expertise in the area of Free Speech and Censorship, Marjorie Heins meticulously explores here the underlying assumptions behind many forms of censorship in the United States. One can learn a great deal about censorship and the law from this book, but that is a side effect, not the main theme. The author's primary goal is to explore the nature of childhood itself, of the presumption of innocence, and the ways in which minors might -- and really might not -- be harmed by the materials many adults don't want them to see.

A great many assumptions about the nature of childhood and the way children might be harmed by violence, vulgarity, or sex in books must all be true if censorship is to be justified in the name of protecting children. Yet these assumptions mostly go unanalyzed, often even unarticularted, more instinctual than reasoned. Often, the most vociferous censors are the least able to explain how the books they want suppressed present any danger, or to offer a practical set of standards as to what kinds of book content are or are not "harmful."

This book is more about innocence, society, and the development of children into good citizens, than it is about the legalities of censorship. While some readers will find themselves more open to the author's point of view than others, all will come away with a clearer understanding of the censorship debate, a better grasp of the assumptions that motivate censorship and resistance to censorship.

Some quotes from the authors conclusion sum up her arguments well:
Intellectual protectionism frustrates rather than enhances young people's mental agility and capacity to deal with the world. It inhibits straightforward discussion about sex. Indeed, like TV violence, censorship may also have "modeling effects," teaching authoritarianism, intolerance for unpopular opinions, erotophobia, and sexual guilt. Censorship is an avoidance technique that addresses adult anxieties and satisfies symbolic concerns, but ultimately does nothing to resolve social problems or affirmatively help adolescents and children cope with their environments and impulses or navigate the dense and insistent media barrage that surrounds them. [p. 257]

Obviously, very young children have little capacity to enjoy the blessings of First Amendment intellectual freedom. But most of the harm-to-minors debate concerns children beyond the "age of reason" (about 7) and teenagers, at whose socialization "ethical and moral development" arguments are primarily directed. [pp. 258-259]

Harm-to-minors censorship frequently fails to make these age- and maturity-based distinctions. Too often, it merges toddlers, grade schoolers, and teenagers into one vast pool of vulnerable youth. If a First Amendment difference is to be maintained between minors and adults, there ought at least to be more thoughtful and finely calibrated judgments about it. As the Supreme Court has said, constitutional rights "do not mature and come into being magically only when one attains the state-defined age of majority."* [p. 259]

*The quote within the last quote is from Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52, 74 (1976).


  1. Have you read Harmful to Minors by Judith Levine? I can't remember if I've mentioned that book on this blog before, but it sounds like it covers much of the same ground as this book, and I found it fascinating.

  2. I haven't read it, but will check it out. From reviews I skimmed over, it appears that Levine's book is a more general look at sexuality and childhood, while Heins' is a bit more focussed on censorship and supposed harm arising from exposure to materials with sexual information.