Defense of censorship: ‘Save the children!’

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (U-WIRE) — OK, that does it! Uncle Sam is definitely off my Christmas list this year. You know, I’ve tried to be a good nephew to him but it hasn’t been easy. For one thing, he’s constantly hitting me up for money (taxes) to pay his bills. And I really don’t like that bad crowd he’s been hanging out with lately (corporate lobbyists). He’s even lied to me on more than a few occasions (“Read my lips,” “Oswald did it”). But what really gripes me is his increasing desire to meddle in my life by limiting what I can say and do (censorship).
Last week, the morality police were out in force after the Federal Trade Commission released a report which accused Hollywood of marketing adult material, such as R-rated movies and violent video games, to underage kiddies. Like a stampede of hungry rhinos, politicians quickly lined up to bash Tinseltown and to call for new regulations on the entertainment industry. Leading the pack, with a keen eye on the “mommy vote,” was the Democratic presidential ticket.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrats’ perpetually offended vice presidential nominee, attacked Hollywood for creating a “culture of carnage” surrounding young people, in which parents felt “locked in a losing competition with the culture to raise our children.”
Al Gore, his charismatically challenged running mate, agreed, bemoaning, “It’s hard enough to raise children today without the entertainment industry making it more difficult.” “His Boringness” promptly promised to seek new federal legislation against Hollywood within six months if it doesn’t start shielding young people from adult material.
First Mama Hillary Clinton also piped into the debate, calling Hollywood’s marketing practices “an outrage” and vowing to support “appropriate action to protect our children.”
Folks, all this talk by candidates about “protecting children” can only mean one thing. It’s election time! There’s no better way to score points with the public than vowing to “save the children” from some ominous threat to their well-being. Since Hollywood is just about as popular with the average American voter as the bubonic plague, it’s long been a favorite punching bag of politicians seeking to place the blame for youth violence.
For example, take last week’s Senate hearings that were held in response to the FTC’s report on media violence. Senators and senior government officials made it clear their displeasure with the entertainment business extends beyond its aggressive advertising practices — they felt that violence and sex in the media had gone too far and should be curtailed. Although no one came out and said they wanted “censorship,” some came pretty darn close. aid Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, “The day is fast approaching when the American people may be willing to accept some restriction of freedom of expression in order to protect their children.”
In fairness, most senators took a less stringent line than Hagel, stressing that they should first ask Hollywood to voluntarily limit the violence it portrays. However, make no mistake, what the government asks someone to do today, it tells them to do tomorrow.
Such was the case with the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, it destroyed freedom of speech on the Internet by banning anything “indecent” from appearing on the Web in order to — surprise, surprise — protect minors. Thoroughly unconstitutional, the Supreme Court quickly struck down the act. As Justice John Paul Stevens put it so succinctly in writing the Court’s decision, “In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another.”
That’s where the “save the childreners” have it all wrong in their fight against Hollywood. The Constitution wasn’t written to protect children; it was written to protect freedom. Adults have the right to see violent movies and sexy TV shows — to restrict them from doing so flies in the face of the First Amendment. It’s the responsibility of parents, not the government, to monitor what children see and hear.
A little over 200 years ago, a group of old white men in powdered wigs gathered together in Philadelphia to chart the course of a new nation. They had a choice to make — they could create a stable society similar to the one they’d just gained independence from, where controls on speech, religion and the press were commonplace. Or they could build a nation based upon new ideas, where people could speak freely, belong to the church of their choice and gather information from an independent press. The first system ensured stability at the cost of individuality. The second promised liberty and freedom from tyranny. Our founding fathers chose the latter. It was the right decision.
Of course, there is a price to be paid for living in freedom. There will always be those who abuse the right of free expression by spreading ideas appalling to most of us — ideas of hatred, bigotry and violence. But considering the alternatives to our society, I believe it’s a small price to pay. Those who’d rather live in a land where the media is tightly controlled and the government decides what’s best for society can always buy themselves a one-way ticket to Beijing.

Bill Cleeland’s column originally appeared in the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini on Sept. 19. Send comments to [email protected]