A Case for Censorship
May 1996By Thomas Storck
Thomas Storck is a librarian in Washington, D.C.
Anyone currently undertaking to defend censorship has to reckon not only with considerable abhorrence of the practice, but even with distaste for the word itself. It seems that even those who would like to restrict publications, broadcasts, or films shy away from the term "censorship." They are at pains to distinguish what they would do from what censors do. When the head of the National Coalition on Television Violence testified before Congress in December 1992 and presented a "10-point plan to sweep violence off TV and off our streets," it is interesting that the first point in the plan was "no censorship." No one wants to own up to being a would-be censor, and thus very few are willing to stand up and openly defend this venerable practice. But I am happy to do so, for censorship has long seemed to me a necessary, if regrettable, part of practical political wisdom and an opportunity for the judicious exercise of human intelligence. For, human nature being what it is, it is naive to think we can freely read and view things that promote or portray evil deeds without sometimes feeling encouraged to commit such deeds. And if this is the case, then censorship can sometimes be a necessity.
But before defending censorship I need to define it. And I define censorship simply as the restriction, absolute or merely to some part of the population (e.g., to the unlearned or to children), by the proper political authorities, of intellectual, literary, or artistic material in any format. I want to note two things especially about this definition. First, I am not talking simply about censoring pornography. I also include censorship of works that are expressions of erroneous ideas, a position which I realize is extremely unpopular today, even more hated than the banning of obscene works. Secondly, I am concerned only with censorship by governments. The determination of intellectual or cultural matters for the sake of the common good, such as what books and other things the nation may read or view, is not properly the work of private pressure groups or crusading individuals, though their work may sometimes be necessary when the state does not carry out its proper functions in this area. But the state alone has general care of the temporal common good, and censorship is one of the most important ways of safeguarding that good.
I am concerned here only with censorship in the abstract. That is, I am not defending or advocating any particular act of censorship in the past, present, or future, or in any particular country or legal system, though I do need to offer some hypothetical examples. I am simply arguing that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with censoring. All I hope to achieve is to make a compelling case that censorship as such is an appropriate exercise of governmental power and that the practical difficulties necessarily involved, while great, are not overwhelming.
Since I am speaking of censorship in the abstract, considerations based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or on decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court are not relevant to my argument. Whatever restrictions the American Constitution wisely or unwisely imposes on governmental power with respect to freedom of expression do not apply to governments in general.
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