Once upon a time in America, censorship was a largely conservative project. From the Hayes Office and the Smith Act to wartime censorship and the Federal Communication Commission's fleeting-expletives rule, censorship served mostly Puritanism or jingoism.
Those sorts of censorship have waned. Sexuality and sedition no longer stir such a strong urge to smother and stifle—at least not to any effective degree. Parents occasionally complain about a book on a school reading list, but the instances in which the complaints lead to removal are rare. FBI chief James Comey might sound alarms about cellphone encryption, but nobody in Congress is proposing legislation to ban it.
Yet the impulse to stifle still thrives. Only the targets have changed.
Some recent examples.
(1) In May, Houston passed an ordinance protecting gay and lesbian residents from discrimination by private businesses. Religious conservatives objected, and launched a petition drive to place a repeal referendum on the ballot. The drive collected more than 50,000 signatures—well in excess of the 17,259 required. But Mayor Annise Parker and the city attorney refused to allow the ballot measure, contending the petition had too many irregularities.
Petition backers sued—whereupon the city subpoenaed five local pastors, demanding they turn over their sermons—even though the pastors are not party to the lawsuit, and the validity of petition signatures hardly hangs on what they said on any given Sunday. A national outcry ensued.
The Parker administration has made a small strategic retreat, claiming it no longer wants to see the sermons. It still insists on copies of any email or other communication the pastors made regarding "equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity." The Texas ACLU supports the equal-rights ordinance, but says there was "no need to include" sermons in the subpoenas.
The Parker administration claims religious groups made a big fat deal out of nothing. It accuses the churches of misrepresenting the subpoenas to stir up a "media circus." But that spin is contradicted by the mayor herself, who wrote just a few days ago that "if the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game."
In any event, most people have enough sense to see what was going on: an attempt to browbeat religious people into silence. As an article in The Federalist noted recently (quoting an online commenter): "Imagine you lived in a country where there was no law saying you couldn't criticize the President, but the authorities would just like a copy of it if you did."
(2) The authorities would like to monitor people's communications in other ways as well. As Ajit Pai, a member of the FCC, explained recently in The Washington Post, the National Science Foundation has underwritten an Indiana University project to monitor what people say on Twitter. Dubbed "Truthy," the project explores interesting academic questions such as how memes spread across social media.
"But there's much more to the story," Pai writes. "Focusing in particular on political speech, Truthy keeps track of which Twitter accounts are using hashtags such as #teaparty and #dems. It estimates users' 'partisanship.' It invites feedback on whether specific Twitter users, such as the Drudge Report, are 'truthy' or 'spamming.' … The Truthy team says this research could be used to 'mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.' "
As Pai asks, what business does the government have deciding which political sentiments are false, hateful or subversive? He notes that the project's leaders wrote a 2012 paper warning of activity by a "highly active, densely interconnected constituency of right-leaning users using Twitter . . . to further their political views." If you lean to the left, that might not seem so alarming. But imagine a project like Truthy under the direction of, say, Dick Cheney.
(3) By now most Americans are familiar with campus speech codes and restrictive "free-speech zones." Many colleges and universities have adopted a sort of kid-glove totalitarianism that seeks to make colleges "safe spaces"—by ridding them of any idea that might cause discomfort, providing "trigger warnings" for works that broach sensitive subjects, and indoctrinating students in the correct attitudes and viewpoints on issues of identity politics. For all their self-professed devotion to diversity, many colleges enforce a rigid conformity of thought on a wide range of issues—often to the point of violating the First Amendment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has done a stellar job of documenting, exposing and correcting many of those violations. But it cannot address the underlying ailment: a seething hostility to out-group ideas that greets even mild heterodoxy with histrionic outrage and demands that invited speakers be dis-invited posthaste. Recent examples abound.
"Dissent," according to a bumper sticker popular during the Bush years, "is the highest form of patriotism." Judging by recent events, that sentiment often depends on what it is the dissenter is dissenting from.