The Case Against Censorship in a Self-Governed Society

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Historically, the United States has permitted government censorship of film and television content in order to preserve cultural values in society. However, as the content that Americans are able to obtain in movies and on the television continues to expand, relying on censorship in order to preserve community standards is becoming a futile goal. Recent trends towards freedom of expression in entertainment should be valued over government censorship because censorship by the government violates the Constitutional rights of entertainers, government censorship is incompatible with the values of a self-governed society, and government censorship impedes upon the opportunity for individuals and the public to exercise their own conscience to promote morality in entertainment.

As the foundational document of the United States, the Constitution must be given top priority in determining whether government censorship ought to be tolerated. The U.S. Constitution plays an important role in defining the proper functions of government and preserving the rights of the American public. Yet, traditionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has supported the side of government censors. As legal scholar Melville B. Nimmer noted, as early as 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court justified the censorship of the motion picture industry in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, where the Court upheld the Ohio government’s right to deny a license to a film exhibit (Nimmer 625). However, while the U.S. Supreme Court stated in their written opinion that governments had the right to protect the public from improper opinions, the Court failed to consider whether the First Amendment actually permitted government censorship in the case (625). Rather, they solely based their ruling on whether the ban on the film exhibit had violated the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution (626). Thus, the historical support of censoring entertainment failed to address the fundamental issue of the human right to information that was at stake.

Recent reviews of government censorship reveal that the practice indeed counters the First Amendment protections of the producers and entertainers that help create films and television programs. As Nimmer notes, the U.S. Supreme Court began to reverse its previous stances on censorship after 1952 when it began applying the “clear and present danger” test in order to determine whether speech could be rightfully infringed upon (627). As a controversial film does not cause immediate danger to the public, it could hardly be argued that censorship was justified. Additionally, Near v. Minnesota established that the First Amendment prohibits acts that place prior restraints on speech, even if that speech would warrant subsequent punishment (628). Finally, United States v. Paramount Pictures established that motion pictures constituted a form of speech that warranted Constitutional protections (628). As these rulings demonstrate, the latter 20th century has yielded an understanding that an artistic expression is a form of speech that cannot be preemptively infringed upon by the government.

While government censorship of films violated First Amendment protections, it also violates the fundamental values of a self-governing society. As a philosophy professor, Avrum Stroll highlights, early philosophers, including Plato and Thomas Hobbes, permitted forms of censorship in their political philosophies as a means of preserving the public good (84). Yet, Stroll posits that the reason that censorship is inappropriate to political philosophies that promote self-governance is that censorship presents the government as the parents who are wiser than their offspring and the citizens as immature children in need of restraint (85).  An example of squashing self-expression regarding the political environment can bee seen in the case of Czechoslovakia. Further, Stroll notes that censorship elevates the censors above the general public:

Unlike them, he is free to read, to hear, to discuss anything; unlike them, he is invariably pictured as wiser, more mature, more experienced and in a better position to know what is right and what is wrong, what should and should not be done (86).

Stroll’s observations underscore the manner through which government censorship undermines the very principles of self-government. In order for individuals to govern themselves, there must be an assumption that individuals are mature and logical enough to make decisions in their own interest. However, the practice of censorship assumes that individuals lack the maturity that is needed to make even basic decisions about the entertainment they consume. Thus, even if society were to agree that officials appointed through a representative government should censor media, this very act elevates the appointed officials above the public and enables the self-governed to abrogate their duty to set their own cultural standards.

Finally, government censorship of film and television in America is inappropriate because it undermines the role that individuals should play in promoting social change. Often, the most effective form of censorship can come for willful decisions made by individuals rather than governments. As an example, scholar Bob Pondillo describes the role that public activism and individual decision-making played in combating racial stereotypes on television. As he notes, following World War II, the commercialization of television caused many networks to promote racial stereotypes in their programming in order to appease the prejudices of advertisers and the demands of the wider public (103). Yet, the post-World War II civil rights movement placed demands upon television executives to discontinue offensive racial stereotypes in television (103). Further, Stock Helfrich, head of the NBC Continuity Acceptance Radio/Television Department during the 1950s, took many unprecedented steps to eliminate racist images on television (103). During his tenure, he ordered that cuts be made from cartoons that mocked African Americans, banned productions that negatively stereotyped African Americans, and developed the “Integration without Identification” Policy in order to racially integrate network television shows (103; 108). Notably, these reforms were made without government input. As these actions demonstrate, the actions of the public and individuals can often be an effective means to promote social change and moral values in entertainment.

Though government censorship of entertainment was a well-established practice in the early 20th century, these practices have become less popular and the Courts have recognized that entertainment is a form of speech. Because film and television seek to communicate with the public, individuals who participate in producing these media are warranted First Amendment protections that guarantee their freedom to speech. Further, even when the content of a film or television program may be legally or morally questionable, Court precedents hold that the government cannot preemptively silence producers from presenting their film or program. Further, government censorship undermines the principles of self-government by elevating the government censors above the public in determining what is acceptable and unacceptable for the public to view. Yet, in a democratic form of government, citizens have a unique responsibility to make these determinations for themselves and to exercise their conscience when they believe that practices in the entertainment industry are immoral. Thus, censorship should not be permitted because it is the responsibility of the public, and not government officials, to make determinations on the value of film and television programs in society.

Works Cited

Nimmer, Melville B. "The Constitutionality of the Censorship of Motion Pictures." The University of Chicago Law Review 25 (1957): 625. ProQuest. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Pondillo, Bob. "Racial Discourse AND Censorship on NBC-TV, 1948-60." Journal of Popular Film & Television 33.2 (2005): 102-14.ProQuest. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Stroll, Avrum. "Censorship, Models and Self-Government." The Journal of Value Inquiry 1.2 (1967): 81. ProQuest. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.