Censorship the American Way


Americans don't believe in censorship, except…

The world, it seems, is full of exceptions—ideas so dangerous they must be forbidden or, sometimes, so valuable they must be required. The list of no-nos used to be pretty short: yelling "fire" in a crowded theater or similar "clear and present dangers." Debate wasn't completely free, but it was close.

Then Congress and the courts decided that the First Amendment doesn't apply to newfangled electronic speech. They used economic scarcity to justify licensing radio and TV stations, just as kings and queens used to license printing. The next thing you knew, the government was meddling in what was said.

For awhile, that meddling consisted mostly of forcing broadcasters to be "fair." So we got stories with no sharp edges, no broadcast equivalents of REASON or Mother Jones or National Review—only Time and Newsweek and lots and lots of People.

But now that everybody's used to the government decreeing what broadcasters must say, the interest groups are lining up to dictate what they can't say. And that, dear readers, is censorship the old-fashioned way.

"There's violence on my TV and I don't like it," rails Sen. Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.). His solution: a bill sponsored by "liberal" Sen. Paul Simon (D–Ill.) to encourage "voluntary" self-censorship by broadcasters. Or else.

Now, TV violence may not sound like an "idea"—as in "the free exchange of." But it is, and its critics are the first to admit it. Researcher Aletha C. Huston of the University of Kansas, testifying for the bill, told senators that "heavy viewers of television violence approve of violent solutions to problems"—certainly an idea, and a political one at that.

The National Coalition on Television Violence objects to the show "Photon Warrior" because it depicts "adolescents fighting 'the forces of evil' with infrared Photon guns.'" Children should not be taught to fight evil with violence, says NCTV, and the government must stop the spread of such notions. "The toy industry's greed for money must not be allowed to trample the moral development of our next generation."

Less pacifistic censors just want to keep kids from lusting after the latest toys—an impossible dream if ever there was one. Led by Peggy Charren's Action for Children's Television, these critics have won a court ruling that the FCC failed to give enough reasons for not outlawing toy-based TV shows—a dangerous and outrageous shift in the burden of proof. Are "Popples" and "Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears" so threatening that they must be presumed guilty until proven innocent?

That such a lame justification for outright bans on free speech is taken seriously in the courts and on Capitol Hill—and, more often than not, praised by print journalists—demonstrates just how tolerant of the practice the public has become.

In fact, the government has recently seized control of yet another medium—satellite photography—and the normally vigilant press has barely raised a peep. Under new licensing rules, the Defense and State Departments can veto satellite photos they deem threats to national security or foreign policy. U.S. satellite operators who take such photos can have them confiscated before publication or can be shut down entirely. The government now has the power of prior restraint, the right to censor before publication. Again, the power to license new technology is stifling the free flow of ideas.

And for what? To make sure the government, not the public, sets the foreign policy agenda—even if that means protecting the enemies of the United States. Satellite photos aren't needed to penetrate an open society; a few leaks work much better. So it's not surprising that most photos provide peeks inside closed societies—Iran, Libya, and the Soviet Union.

These countries know what their military bases and nuclear-plant accidents look like; so does the U.S. government. But the public may not. And if it finds out inconvenient facts at an inconvenient time, the public might derail arms-control negotiations or question Middle East policy. Censorship is designed to prevent that.

Every attempt to censor is an attempt to kill an idea. Sometimes the idea is trivial—kids should buy Gummi Bears, for example. Sometimes it seems trivial in one age and vital in another. Censors once squelched arguments that one shouldn't kneel at communion but cared little about tobacco; today, cigarette advertising is banned and not even Peggy Charren worries about kneeling.

Sometimes the censors speak for national security, sometimes for public morals. But always they speak for fear. Fear that their opponents' ideas will persuade. Fear that their own arguments, values, and beliefs will be found wanting. Fear that free people, left to their own devices, will fall into evil ways. Americans have come to accept such fears, to readily grant exceptions to the rule of free speech. And that is reason to be afraid.