04 June 2004

The Perfesser rightly wonders about the revived-for-the-fiftieth-time hearings on censoring cable TV now making their way through Congress. I wasn't even old enough to vote when I had to deal with censorship for the first time, in a relatively small school district that has had the dubious distinction of being intimately involved in three Supreme Court cases on the first Amendment. One brownie point if anyone can name the school district, and another if anyone can correctly name all three cases.

In any event, one school board member—we'll call her Mary, which in fact was her real name, but she's a public figure so this can't possibly be defamatory—managed to get elected through strategic voting in at-large elections. (That alone should give away that this was some time ago.) Mary was very concerned about the disrespectful, unruly, and downright immoral behavior rampant in the middle and high schools at the time. She introduced a number of resolutions proposing school prayer and what amounted to religious and "moral" standards for faculty, which fortunately were often voted down. Of more interest, Mary supported the efforts of an even-more-obnoxiously bigoted fundamentalist group, all of whom lived in one neighborhood near the border of another school district, to restrict access to some books as inappropriate for impressionable teenagers. This "restricted access" would have included removing the books from any syllabi on which they appeared and placing them on closed shelves in the school libraries.

One of the books explicitly named was science fiction. The rationale for restricting access was that it encouraged disrespect for authority and extramarital affairs, and particularly those involving young women. Those of you with a sense of irony can probably guess which book was at issue.

All of which leads me to ask a question: Would a broadcast of Nixon's tapes be an "inappropriate" program without substantial beeping, and even outright censorship? Then there's the core question: what exactly is "inappropriate" or "indecent" or "obscene"? If blowing someone's head off is not a reasonable thing for "children" to see—in terms of the intellectual honesty, I'd include about 400 members of Congress in that group—do we need to censor Fox News, and CNN, and MSNBC, for showing anything relating to Mr. Berg's demise?

The difficulty with all of this is who gets to define the terms—especially if it's some fundamentalist preacher too busy being indicted for tax evasion to pay any attention to his flock. Potter Stewart's thoughts are not helpful, especially if the apocryphal story that he responded "Once, off the coast of Tangier" when asked by his clerks whether he had ever seen any obscene films happens to be true. The "community standard" approach is perhaps a bit softer; but then we still end up with Memphis judging Times Square. Then there's the "hidden agenda" question. Consider, for example, Native Son, which in the end is about the consequences of an "obscene" act. Do we allow a group with a hidden agenda to censor Native Son because there is some material in it that might be "obscene"? Be careful how you answer… because this is not a hypothetical. I had to deal with this in the last few years as a concerned parent on behalf of my children. In this school district, which includes both the University of Illinois and the National Council of Teachers of English.

I'm not a fan of "slippery slope" arguments; but censorship is one area in which the slope is indeed so slippery that they have some credibility.