Censorship! Probably few words so readily stir emotion as does this word. And for good reason, so closely does it bear on our hard-won freedoms. We shudder to think of a day when we in America may lose the freedom of the press or the freedom of speech. Critics of censorship are therefore many and eloquent. They have contended, and perhaps rightly, that censorship lends itself readily to authoritarianism; that once adopted, it can become an effective weapon against minority groups and the suppression of ideas. Our generation is aware of the tragic effects of censorship in many countries; little wonder we shun it so.
Censorship is an effort on the part of some members of a society to protect themselves, as well as others, from certain materials or ideas which they regard as undesirable or potentially harmful. Certainly the licentious display of sex and immorality is offensive to many persons in contemporary society. Have these persons no right to protection against such things under our Constitution? Censorship would not be nearly so imperative if the distribution of this sex-laden material were confined to a small segment of society and were so isolated. It is the forcing of such material and ideas upon a defenseless and unsuspecting audience, subscriber, listener, or reader that is so objectionable. The receipt of unsolicited pornography by a child is an outrageous example.
One area of confusion concerns the censor’s motivation. Undoubtedly, many persons advocating censorship have the destruction of the thing censored as the ultimate objective. Because something may be misused by a person, however, does not necessarily mean that we should destroy or prohibit it. Many things would then be denied to us which in the hands of the right persons actually benefit mankind. Unrestrained “censorship” would undoubtedly result in the removal of much that could prove to be helpful or good in our society. The good would often be destroyed with the bad. There are precedents in our society for regulation rather than censorship for the protection of the social order. In many areas of social living we consider it wise and prudent to regulate the distribution of commodities (for example, drugs, poisons) that may serve a humanitarian purpose, yet are potentially harmful.
Is Obscene Literature Harmful
Some have contended that pornography and obscene literature are not actually harmful or offensive except to a small segment of society. Indeed, outside of an ethico-religious context, it is difficult to determine what is harmful in matters of morals and ideas. Science is not always able to provide answers to such questions. For example, scientific investigation into the possible relationship between specific criminal offenses and obscene literature has been inconclusive. On the basis of scientific evidence, such materials can only be regarded as being a contributing factor to criminal behavior and not a sufficient or necessary cause.
It has been shown, however, that there may be a detrimental or delinquency-producing effect upon some emotionally disturbed persons who may gain from such material suggestion, support, and sanction for acting out their own hostile and aggressive feelings. There is also reason to believe that the persons consuming the large portion of this type of material are the very persons least able to tolerate its suggestive influence.
It has been contended that the portrayals of such material are only fiction, and should not be regarded in the same fashion as educational instruments which must be realistic and true-to-life in their expression of things. Such a distinction is not always made in the minds of the viewers or readers, especially when confronted with a steady stream of this sort of thing. It has a kind of “brain-washing” effect after awhile. There is a general weakening of the means of social control. There is a tendency to find social approval for misconduct by identifying oneself with the principal character of the movies, novels, comics, and the like. Aside from any specific effect of pornography and sex-centered material, upon the person, there is the general deterioration of the moral structure of society and the weakening of social control, especially in the crucial areas of marriage and family living.
In defense of such novels as Lady Chatterly’s Lover, it has been argued that the book describes the way people live in our society, and we are being puerile to pretend that such things do not exist. If sex seems to be repulsive to us, we are told, it is because we are sexually inhibited, frustrated, or prudish. However, it is not sex that those advocating censorship wish to regulate, but the indiscriminate distribution and sale of material that tends to appeal to the baser interests in man. And even if this is the way a large number of our people do in fact live (a questionable proposition), does this alone justify the usage of such a theme in so unrestrained a fashion and with such uncouth language? Have we no ethical code above or beyond what people may do in real life? Can this justify indiscriminate and unlimited distribution of such material to the youth of our nation?
Some have attempted to defend pornographic and obscene material as a form of literature or art: a position that would seem difficult to support. Examination of the material reveals it to be uniformly lacking in theme, composition, and in general aesthetic quality. Furthermore, the photography is frequently poor and also in poor taste. The desired effect is quite obvious-nothing but lust.
Freedom Of The Press
The legal counsel for publishers of prurient matter have generally called attention to the safeguards for the freedom of the press that are a part of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. “If we open the door to censorship here,” they say, “then where will it stop?” They contend that censorship by any group whatever is an encroachment upon the freedom of both the individual and the press, and are joined by intellectuals who assert that each of us should have the right to decide for ourselves what we shall or shall not read.
It becomes apparent that we are not all using the term “freedom” in the same sense. It is by no means certain that such unlimited freedom on the part of members of a society is actually a good or desirable thing. We do not even pretend to live under such conditions in our society. We are not free to go anywhere we want, do anything we want, or say anything we want. We are hedged in on every side with restrictions which the sociologists call “folkways and mores.” Together with our enormous body of statutory law, they act as definite limitations to our behavior. Since most of us are rather well integrated into society and have internalized the moral codes, we never sense the potential conflict that resides in these cultural impositions upon our freedom. In fact, we rather like them and find them both useful and good, and almost never complain about our “loss of freedom.”
A doctrine of absolute freedom implies the ability to recognize values, to exercise some discipline and control of one’s own choices, and most important, to take responsibility for one’s choices. Not everyone has such discretion; the uninformed can be easily led astray in his thinking. Immature children cannot grasp the significance of certain concepts and are filled with fear and worry. Perverts and maladjusted persons are not able to handle material that inflames their distorted minds. Society has historically afforded some asylum for such persons. They have been protected by voluntary self-restraint on the part of the more adjusted or mature members of the society. Not infrequently the concept of protection has found its way into the legal codes of the society.
A Historic Decision
In a historic decision on June 24, 1957, the United States Supreme Court stated that “… it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment (‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’) was not intended to protect every utterance.… The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered exchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.… All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—have full protection of the guaranties.… But implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.”
The censorship of potentially harmful material is not the same as a restriction of free inquiry for scientific purposes, nor is it even closely related to the abolishment of academic or political freedom. A society that does not provide for the protection of its institutions will soon suffer the problems of social disorganization. Censorship should not be designed for the purpose of maintaining the status quo in morals or in any other realm. However, it should be discreetly employed whenever necessary to the well-being of the members of society in general.
The publishers of filthy books and magazines know that sex sells, and that sex means money. The only limit they observe is the saturation point: the amount of filth any particular community will tolerate. The Christian community must become alert to the need for more support of whatever legal means that courts devise for the regulation of the sale and distribution of this objectionable material. They should insist that rights to protection against the indiscriminate sale and display of this material are at least as important and valid as the “rights” of unscrupulous publishers who are unwilling to give up a lucrative business built upon the unwholesome aspects of sex and its perversion.
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