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Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Week Six: Censorship

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...


There is supposed to be one reason to censor speech in this country: you cannot harm others. You cannot shout “Theatre!” in a crowded fire. You cannot sell a cure for cancer by claiming it's snake-oil. When demonstratable harm is done to others, speech can be censored.

That's the idea, anyway. And it's not a bad idea. If the last words I hear are “jump off the bridge—there's a bomb!” then I'd certainly hope there really was a bomb. However, the ‘demonstratable harm’ theory quickly gives way to a second, more pernicious theory: that speech can be censored when demonstratable harm is done to the common good.

We say ‘the common good’ because if we said ‘the people,’ we'd look like communists. But the theory is the same: that the people, as a group, have rights of some sort. Obscenity law comes from this reasoning. So do flag-burning amendments. So did the arrests of newspaper editors critical of the government during the first world war and the civil war. So did the Alien and Sedition acts. So do many other things. Sometimes people argue that certain specific groups are endangered by certain types of speech. This is especially true of obsencity laws, which are there to protect ‘the children.’ (“Censorship,” Mark Twain once said, “is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it.”) But still these laws place the rights of a group above those of an indivdual.

That's called ‘collectivism.’ It is antithetical to freedom, and to the ideals this country was founded on. And it is where the line, in censorship, and most other things as well, needs to be drawn.

If I understand your commentary properly, you equate censorship to collectivism? That general social mores aren't appropriate? Does this also extend to laws about, oh say, taxes? Murder? Theft?

Allow me to posit this: It is up to the "collective" to assign what is appropriate moral values to any particular act or acts. To do otherwise would be anarchy.

It is true whether you like it or not.
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