I read A. Barton Hinkle’s latest, Why Sermons, Tweets, and Campus Speech Are Targets of Liberal Censorship Attempts, at reason.com this morning. I’ve got some basic problems with the article, among them that until recently “censorship was a largely conservative project.” As evidence he mentions the Hayes Office, self imposed by Hollywood, and the Smith Act, passed by a Democrat controlled House and Senate and signed into law by the arch-conservative FDR. In fact, when it comes to political speech I’m at ends trying to come up with a single conservative measure banning freedom of expression. Flag burning maybe?
Wilson signed the Sedition Act of 1918 and held that the government’s “authority to exercise censorship over the Press… is absolutely necessary to the public safety.” Under Truman we got the Fairness Doctrine that JFK and LBJ used pretty effectively to stifle criticism. On the Republican side, I bet Nixon wished he had a say in a certain newspaper’s editorial decisions, but he didn’t.
When conservatives call for censorship, it’s generally to increase restrictions that are all ready in place. There will be a handful of radicals that firmly believe commercials that graphically advertise the proper use and enjoyment of The Orgasmatron 3000 should be allowed to air smack in the middle of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but most conservatives, liberals, and libertarians believe there should be some external pressure keeping programmers from doing so.
I tend to believe that any station that peppered their children’s programming with x-rated fare would not last terribly long on any cable or satellite plan. The public wouldn’t stand for it. Problem solved. Both conservatives and liberals both look to government to enforce limits. But to be clear, both are for limits in such cases, they just disagree on where to draw the line and in most cases are discussing what should be allowed in public forums. It’s in the fringes that all out bans on private use of images, etc are discussed.
Why do I differentiate between political and other forms of speech, say pornography? My position is that free speech and expression should be absolute, but if I had to chose between those who would silence dissent and those who would impose their mores I’d reluctantly side with the moralizers most every time. If you maintain an open and healthy debate, even in the most chaste society you can make the case that a flash of ankle every now and again, especially in the privacy of one’s own home, never hurt anybody.
I’m not alone in disagreeing with Hinkle about whose project censorship has largely been historically, as the comments thread bears out. As to his larger point, that modern liberals, or progressives, have a dangerous authoritarian streak in them I completely agree. “Conform or face the power of government,” they seem to be saying. He brings up the mayor of Houston’s attempt to silence religious leaders, the tax payer funded project to monitor political speech on social media, and campus speech codes. He may well add that 49 Democrats in the Senate just voted to gut the first amendment, the IRS denying conservative groups the same tax advantages as their progressive counter parts and illegally leaking the names of conservative donors to chill debate, the monitoring of reporters, and the White House pressuring youtube.com to remove a movie offensive to Islam.
But it was a line in the second paragraph that struck me:
Parents occasionally complain about a book on a school reading list, but the instances on which these complaints lead to removal are rare.
I see this far too often. Anytime a parent objects to a book’s inclusion on a school reading list a segment of society rolls their eyes and dismisses the protest as an attempt to ban a book. Incredibly, Hinkle includes the above quote in a paragraph after one that mentions the Hayes Office and the Smith act and begins “Those sort of censorship have waned,” and lists some exceptions, including the above, as if they are of a piece.
The act of making a school reading list is an act of censorship. It is a list of books that someone has deemed appropriate for children of a certain age. If you have 100 books on your summer list, you have excluded the other 35,999,900 books in The Library of Congress. Whoever made the list didn’t ban them. They selected based on a set of criteria. Why is that set of criteria inviolate?
To those that agree with Hinkle on this point, I have a few questions. Do you believe parents should be aware of what their children are reading? If so why? My child’s school sends a copy of the upcoming grade’s reading list to parents every year. Why do you think they do that? Do parents have a right to be involved in their child’s education, or are they a rubber stamp?
As far as I’m aware, these lists usually have a handful of mandatory books that all students must read and then a larger list from which the child is able to choose three or four. I would think most parents who object to a book on the larger list would just tell their kid to read something else and be done with it. But what if I know about a great novel for young adults that is not included and may have read that a book that is on the list is poorly executed and shallow? Am I wrong to make the case that my book be included in place of the shallow book? Is the school board right just because they got things down on paper before I had my say? Am I asking that they ban the bad book? Are they banning mine by not including it?
What if I have objections to something on the mandatory list? Why shouldn’t I bring it up? Why can’t I make my case? Why can’t I ask the school board to make theirs? Does asking for an open and honest debate make me a book banner?
School reading lists don’t remove ideas from public discourse. They don’t ban books. They reflect someone’s opinion of what children should be exposed to at a certain stage of development. Why a parent should be shamed for wanting to be included in the process is beyond me.