The Theory of Censorship

"The present paper aims not at making a novel contribution but at extricating from the confusion the accepted truths, in the hope that the remaining points of difference may be seen more clearly and perhaps brought nearer to reconciliation."

The question of literary and dramatic censorship is not at the moment merely an annoying perplexity in the life of a single city, but is an issue which concerns the whole country. Its emergence is frequently regarded as a particular instance of an anti-liberal tendency appearing in a great variety of forms throughout the nation, and it is highly important that despite its difficulty we should seek to see clearly what principles are implied in the suppression of books and other forms of expression, and whether these are in harmony with common sense and the ideas which lie at the basis of our social structure.

In spite of recent tendencies in legislation and public opinion we still assume, remembering the confessions of faith on which the republic was founded, that we believe in human liberty. The majority still holds, theoretically at least, that for the highest development of an individual or a community a large degree of freedom is necessary. Most of us would also agree that, in particular questions of the restriction of liberty, the burden of proof is on him who would restrict. Yet it is also agreed that for the preservation of liberty itself certain restrictions are necessary. The nuisance of the radio in the apartment house or at the open window is an obvious instance of this, since the right to make a noise may conflict with the right to enjoy quiet. The problem, then, is not one to be solved by a simple statement of general principles, but by a consideration of how and when the principles, once agreed upon, apply.

I believe that on many matters concerned with censorship there is a larger degree of unanimity than is generally supposed, but that a lack of explicitness has confused the public mind and unnecessarily multiplied antagonisms. The present paper aims not at making a novel contribution but at extricating from the confusion the accepted truths, in the hope that the remaining points of difference may be seen more clearly and perhaps brought nearer to reconciliation.


To begin with, we ought to know whether in applying censorship we are considering the welfare of the adolescent or the adult. No one disputes the necessity of different measures in dealing with the mature and with the immature, since, apart from a few extremists, all our educational measures take for granted that the young must be guarded from risks that may inflict injury before experience has been acquired and before reason has been developed to the point where the significance of the risks can be appreciated. So, in the case of certain types of literature, plays, and pictures, it is justifiable and probably necessary to seek to prevent the young from being exposed to them while their imaginations are highly impressionable and their self--control is undeveloped.

The exercise of measures for this end is a matter mainly for parents and teachers rather than for the police, since what books can be put into the hands of boys or girls, or what plays they should be taken to see, is largely an individual matter dependent less upon mere age than upon degree of development and manner of upbringing. For adolescents who are beyond the control of parents or teachers, the question is more difficult. Even in the days before the Eighteenth Amendment, we enforced laws against sales of liquor to minors, and I suppose similar laws could be made in connection with sales of books and admission to plays. But I should urge the weighing of two considerations in this connection. First, keeping an undesirable book out of the hands of a young boy or girl is an affair requiring much tact, and persuasion is usually better than compulsion or threats of punishment. Otherwise, we simply add the attraction of forbidden fruit and challenge the child to outwit us. Secondly, the attempt to save our children from what we regard as dangerous knowledge is likely in our times to be a locking of the stable door after the steed is stolen. It is my impression that most freshmen (of both sexes) come to college to-day already familiar to the point of losing interest with many of the facts and ideas which anxious parents are terror-stricken lest they acquire. And not only are they familiar with them, but they seem to have acquired a of immunity which leaves them quite as fresh and unspoiled as their ignorantly innocent parents were at their age. The policy of 'Hush, hush! Is seldom effective, and may, indeed, produce precisely the opposite result to that intended.

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