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Government censorship--Danger

What Is So Dangerous About Censorship?

There is nothing speculative about fear of censorship; its net has always been cast too wide. Even now, religious fundamentalists routinely try to force libraries and schools to stop offering various children's classics and fairy tales. The list of great authors whose works have been censored is long and illustrious.

Non-comformists on the left are not the only ones who should fear censorship. Many people have lost jobs or had their writings censored because of claims that they were right-wing (racist, sexist, etc.). This statement does not belittle the serious consequences of racism and sexism; it simply recognizes that different people can read different motivations into a single utterance, and that the terms have sometimes been abused in order to cut off legitimate debate.

Community standards change from era to era and place to place. What self-proclaimed Christian right-winger would allow the following poetry to be published?

This thy stature is like to a palm-tree,
And thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
I said: "I will climb up into the palm-tree,
I will take hold of the branches thereof;
And let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine,
And the smell of thy countenance like apples...

But it's too late, because of course this passage is embedded in the Song of Songs forever (VII:8-9).

When you prohibit discussion of sexuality, you cut off information about one of the most important areas of human activity. Some of this information (such as how to avoid AIDS) can save lives. To censor material given to 17-year-olds is to trample on the rights of youth.

Political censorship is never far behind cultural censorship either. Take the case of Madame Bovery, for which Flaubert was hauled into court. Many scholars now think that the content of the book was just a pretext for a political vendetta that prosecutors tried to carry out against the journal that published the book in serial form, and which was concurrently publishing articles they didn't like on political topics.

Everyone is familiar with Oliver Wendall Holmes's famous injunction against shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. Actually, the judge uttered this phrase during the prosecution of a leafletter who was protesting the U.S.'s entry into the first World War. What most people now see as a contribution to democratic debate was painted by the government as irresponsible and dangerous.

Censorship is therefore an attack on all readers' abilities to hear ideas and judge for themselves. Censorship, despite always being portrayed by the censors as protection, is actually abuse.

Author: Andrew Oram
cyber-rights @

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Last updated: 22 November 1995

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