To a liberal sensibility, 'censorship' is the most
offensive 'c word' of all. Attitudes towards it may
Not in Front of the Children is basically an argument against censoring the art, literature and media to which children are exposed. Whether you like the book or not will depend on the answers to a few relatively straightforward, but extremely significant, questions :
(1) Do you believe that children have the same Constitutional Rights as adults ?
(2) Are there times when the government's interest
in a child's development supersedes the wishes
(3) In the absence of conclusive evidence that "Indecent"
art actually harms children, should they be
(4) Is it necessary to the American Constitutional
scheme that all speech be protected by the First
(5) Given that the First Amendment protects most
kinds of private Speech from Government
(6) Does the coercive nature of the public education
system (taxation) impose a special burden on
(7) Is moral education an appropriate function of public schools ?
(8) Finally, the unasked question that really haunts
the book is whether there is such a thing as
Ms Heins, Director of the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, has sense enough not to get into all of these questions, because to do so would be likely to alienate most readers and virtually all parents. Instead, she sets herself a couple of discrete and easily demolished targets. Then, having taken them down, she wisely declares victory and departs the field, ignoring all the unanswered questions and the fact that simply refuting an argument does not prove its opposite to be true. The book is therefore pretty woefully inadequate to its task.
The easy targets that Ms Heins sets herself are the idea, which is unfortunately the justification for much censorship, that children are innocents who will necessarily be harmed by exposure to indecency. She does a good job of tracing both the development of the notion of children as somehow pure and unsullied and of the subsequent line of laws and court cases which have justified attempts at censorship on the basis of protecting children. These developments are undeniably recent--occuring over the last several centuries--and would most likely seem ludicrous to our ancestors. After all, while it is nearly fatuous to note that kids did not face such things as sex and violence on television hundreds of years ago, it is vital to note that they instead saw the real things. What with growing up on farms, living in cramped quarters, war, plague, famine, child labor, etc, they were exposed to sex, death, and violence nearly every day of their incredibly short and brutal lives.
I yield to no one in my contempt for modern culture, but over-sexualized pro wrestling and a provocatively dressed Britney Spears are awfully mild challenges to the mental state of children by comparison to those that man has faced throughout history. It is all well and good to argue that we should seek to limit children's exposure because we are now a more enlightened society and are capable of insulating them from these things to some degree, but it is foolish to argue that there was some Golden Age in which they were allowed to grow to maturity in complete innocence.
This brings us to Ms Heins's second sitting duck, the question of whether we can know that children are better off if they are insulated from these exposures. Her position, which so far as I'm aware is fairly sound, is that :
[A]lthough social science has not proved any identifiable
subject or medium to cause significant,
That is an unexceptionable statement, pertaining as it does to virtually all ideas and actions and their effects on humans. Ms Heins is far to modest here; the human psyche remains a mystery to us and there is little or no quantifiable evidence to prove any proposition about how one person's actions affect another's psyche, either for good or ill.
This is the essence of conservative free market individualism : because we can not comprehend how ideas and proposed actions will work out in reality, government planning and regulation are unlikely to be effective, and since they must limit personal freedom, they aren't worth risking in the forlorn hope that they'll work out (see Orrin's review of The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek). And this is why censorship is such a deeply troubling issue for conservatives. In general, conservative ideology must support the concept of a free market for ideas too. Let the market decide whether an idea has value or not : presumably those which are truly indecent and offensive will fair poorly.
But it is at this point that the unasked questions above come into play. For while children are not complete innocents, they are not competent citizens either. If they were, if we were to accept the assumptions inherent in Ms Heins's book, that children are entitled to nearly the full array of constitutional rights that adults are, and that they are capable of exercising them sensibly, then we would have to acknowledge that the rest of her thesis follows. Fortunately, her assumptions are manifestly false.
Only true extremists would argue that children have coequal rights to assemble, to speak, to bear arms, to vote, etc. It is still the case, however temporarily, that a parent can ground a child, punish their speech and forbid them a weapon. Heck, parents can even make their kids go to church. It is a fiction then to pretend that children have a constitutional right once they leave their parents control to seek out the "provocative ideas" that their parents have banned. If parents don't want teachers to expose their children to certain ideas, the parents' wishes should be honored.
This principle effectively takes care of the argument that because we can't know whether the effects of exposure will be beneficial or detrimental we should err on the side of freedom of expression. It is the parents' choice whether to take this risk. That they may decide wrongly is of little concern to the rest of us. It's not like we can claim to know any better.
The other approach that is sometimes tried here is to claim that the teacher has a first amendment right to do the exposing. However, as government employees, they are in a particularly weak position to make this claim. For obvious reasons we yield certain aspects of our constitutional rights to our employers in exchange for our jobs. Thus, while the Constitution will still protect my right to wear a t-shirt denouncing my boss, it does not require him to continue employing me. The mere fact that a teacher's employer is a government entity does not magically make such behavior protected speech which can not be punished. And, in the most fundamental sense, the teacher's employers are the very parents who object to having their children exposed to "indecency" in the first place. I'll defend the teacher's right to stand on a street corner and read aloud from any book they want, but if a community decides that their kids shouldn't be reading Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, their wishes should be honored.
What then of the marketplace ? Well, the problem is that the public schools are not a free market; they are a government run monopoly. Most parents, having paid the heavy taxes that fund public education, do not have the financial wherewithal to send their children to the school of their choice. They are captives of a system which seldom is, but ought to be, responsive to community standards. To make education a free market of ideas requires giving parents back the right to censor those ideas they do not like.
This very dilemma though offers a point where conservatives and folks like Ms Heins could work together. The answer to conservatives' concern over the indecent values taught in schools and to the Left's desire to remove any standards of decency, is to reprivatize education. Turn education back into a free market. Let parents decide whether they want their kids to learn traditional values and morality, or whether they want them exposed to every idea, however odd or offensive. Eventually, if you allow this kind of variety and experimentation, you might even begin to accumulate some quantifiable evidence about what effects the different approaches have on the psyches of the young. If it turns out that the kids who are censored grow into tortured and repressed adults, while the unfettered kids are well adjusted and happy, even conservatives might change their minds. But the important thing about the genuine freedom that the market provides is that, even in the face of those results, they might still prefer that their kids not be subjected to materials that they find offensive, or if the reverse obtains, and the kids in conservative schools do better, liberals might still prefer inferior schools that have more freedom of expression. Either, or both, parental decisions would be okay, because it would be the parents who would get to decide what their kids learn. And it should be their decision to make.
Ultimately, the best thing that this book does is to prove, once again, why conservatives should not base public policy arguments on the theoretical effects of those policies, but should instead argue the morality of their positions. If you cut taxes it may, or may not, get the economy going. You may, or may not, be able to balance the budget at the same time. But the actual results are beside the point ? The real reason to cut taxes is because people are entitled to the fruit of their own labors. If you privatize Social Security it may, or may not, make the system more solvent. It may, or may not, make it easier to balance the budget. People might, or might not, have more money when they retire. Who cares ? The real reason to privatize is to make people responsible for their own retirement benefits, instead of depending on a massive and grotesque transfer of wealth from young to old. And censoring what the young are exposed to may have a healthy effect on their psyches. But that too is beside the point. Censorship is appropriate because parents should be allowed to decide, to the greatest extent possible, what ideas and images their children are exposed to. That suffices.
-BOOK SITE : Not in Front of the Children : "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth By Marjorie Heins (FSB Associates)
-The Free Expression Policy Project [National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)] (Director)
-National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Home Page
-Censorship News Online
-Feminists for Free Expression
-ESSAY : Academic Freedom Bites the Dust (Marjorie Heins, National Coalition Against Censorship : Censorship News Online, Spring 2001)
-ESSAY : Screening Out Sex : Kids, Computers, and the New Censors (Marjorie Heins, July/August 1998, The American Prospect)
-ESSAY : Is all sex harmful? (Marjorie Heins, August 05, 1998, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
-ESSAY : WHY THE ATTACKS ON THE PEOPLE v. LARRY FLYNT? (Marjorie Heins, First Freedom Op-Ed Service)
-ESSAY : Media & Violence (Marjorie Heins, Paper Presented at the New York Hilton International Conference on Violence in the Media October 4, 1994)
-ESSAY : HOW PROSECUTORS ARE USING OBSCENITY LAWS TO STIFLE DISSENT (Marjorie Heins, Rock Out Censorship)
-REVIEW : of THE SEX SIDE OF LIFE : Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education by Constance M. Chen (Marjorie Heins, Atlantic Monthly)
-INTERVIEW : Banning censorship : First Amendment attorney and author Marjorie Heins argues that obscenity laws do children more harm than good. (Amy Benfer, Salon)
-LEGAL OPINION : Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit. Re: Urofsky v. Virginia, U.S.D.C., E.D. Va. No. 97-701, U.S.C.A. (4th) No. 98-1481. Date: February 10, 1999
-ARCHIVES : Marjorie Heins (American Prospect)
-ARCHIVES : Marjorie Heins (The Nation)
-ARCHIVES : marjorie heins (Mag Portal)
-ARCHIVES : "Marjorie heins" (Find Articles)
-Slate Book Club : This week, Slate's Book Clubbers examine Marjorie Heins' Not in Front of the Children, a history of indecency laws and other forms of censorship aimed at protecting children from offensive material. From: Marjorie Williams To: Katha Pollitt (Slate)
-REVIEW : of Not in Front of the Children (Charles Taylor, Salon)
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