Thursday, March 4, 2010

Once a Censor, Always a Censor

In January the Menifee Union School District in Riverside County, California, made itself infamous for pulling copies of the Merriam-Webster's dictionary from elementary school classrooms because the book contained dirty words. A fascinating article that appeared on February 25th in the Press Enterprise puts that attempt at censorship into a broader perspective.

The article recounts the long and sordid history of censorship in parts of Riverside County. Recently, the town of Temecula was criticized by the National Coalition against Censorship for removing a painting of a nude woman from an art exhibit located in a city-owned building.  In 2008 some residents complained about a performance of the Vagina Monologues at a city-owned theater. Censorious challenges in the area date back at least to 1994, and have included books like The Kite Runner, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, a children's book titled The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, and the movie Showgirls.

While censorship of library books is, to those of us who value libraries highly, especially barbaric, censorship itself knows no boundaries. The underlying motivation is the same, whether removing a book from a library or a painting from an art exhibit: one person's certainty that his or her personal values should determine the ideas and expressions that others can and cannot know about.

The article quotes one Temecula resident as aptly summing up the censorious mindset:
'While saying she doesn't support censorship, [she] said "I'm into acting responsibly when an individual's freedom of speech is viewed as potentially harmful and intimidating to another person's belief system."'
We've seen this over and over again, in West Bend, WI, in Leesburg, FL, and countless other towns. First the denial, the claim that what the censor wants is not censorship, requiring us to abandon all logic so we can  believe that removing a book or removing a painting or shutting down a performance from public display could possibly be called anything else. This is followed immediately by a two-pronged attack on Free Speech itself. The first prong of that attack is to claim that one person's expression, mere expression, is "potentially harmful and intimidating" to another person's beliefs. The second prong is to assert that a person holding such fragile beliefs has some kind of right never to see or hear anything that questions, challenges, or offends those beliefs.

Freedom of Speech directly entails that some people are going to be offended. Living in a pluralistic democracy requires each of us to accept the fact that we will sometimes see or hear things we don't agree with or don't approve of. As the US Supreme Court wrote in the 1969 case Street v. New York, "It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers. "

1 comment:

  1. Tsk tsk. This reminds me of a case I heard of where a man was caught defacing library books with nude pictures in them. I told a friend of mine about it and she asked "When he takes a shower, does he slash himself?"