Flashbacks July 2006

Obscenity, Censorship, and the First Amendment

Atlantic writings from the turn of the twentieth century forward on the fraught battleground between freedom of speech and public morality
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Since Janet Jackson's now-infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl, the climate of broadcast television and its approach to material of questionable decency has changed significantly. The Federal Communications Commission has become vigilant about issuing fines for anything it deems inappropriate, and the networks themselves have begun to engage in rigorous self-censorship.

More recently, in April, a consortium of the four main networks and hundreds of affiliates sued the FCC, seeking to overturn FCC rulings against programs that contained only brief—and, they contended, often unintentional—incidents of objectionable language or images. The following month, Congress approved a tenfold increase in FCC fines, from a $32,500 maximum up to $325,000.

The debate over what constitutes inappropriate material and whether (and how) the public should be protected from it will not likely be settled any time soon. Indeed, as a look back at Atlantic articles from the turn of the twentieth century through the seventies suggests, it is a debate that has long been heated—and one about which legitimate points can be made from seemingly every side.

In August 1901, an anonymous author considered the controversy then ongoing over whether nude statues should be exhibited in public. Some, he explained, were "concerned about the morals of the public," and feared that "grave harm is done by such exhibitions." But others, he noted, were accepting of the statues, convinced that "no evil was intended" by them and that "beauty is its own excuse for being."

Believing that neither side was entirely in the wrong, the author proposed a solution:

Let the offending statue go to a reserved room, just as an offending book in the public library goes to a reserved shelf. Any one who has a right to see the statue will be admitted to do so by the curator...

If the public demands that the Discobolus should be relegated to an attic because it is unclothed, very well, let it go there. Let me have the key to the attic when I wish it. If the statue is really good and pure, as thousands of good people believe, it will, by and by, be brought down to the main hall.

Two decades later, in "Unprintable," Stuart Sherman considered a growing trend toward the banning of certain books. He described the quest of the "Militant Morality" to "make the world safe for children and adolescents"—a mission that Sherman found deeply unsettling.

In recent years, he noted, it had been not only truly disturbing material that had been targeted for suppression by moral crusaders, but a number of classic novels as well. In the course of one recent obscenity trial, a lawyer had argued: "A book to be obscene, need not be obscene throughout the whole of its contents; but if the book is obscene in part, it is an obscene book." By such logic, Sherman warned, "any jury which honestly obeyed these instructions could bar from the mails the Bible, Shakespeare, or even an unabridged English Dictionary."

In 1930, observing dozens of cases in Massachusetts in which books had been banned based only on isolated passages, The Atlantic published a pair of articles considering the question of government censorship.

In "The Theory of Censorship," William Allan Neilson argued that first "we ought to know whether in applying censorship we are considering the welfare of the adolescent or the adult." It is true, Neilson wrote, that in general "the young must be guarded from risks that may inflict injury before experience has been acquired." He suggested that parents and teachers should therefore think carefully about which books and plays they exposed children to. But some of the hand-wringing over affronts to the delicate sensibilities of the young, he argued, was probably misplaced:

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.

As for adults, Neilson emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the willing and the captive audience: "The adult," he argued, "has a right to be protected against the display of offensive print or pictures where he cannot avoid them." But censorship, he contended, may be inappropriate when applied to the right of the adult to seek out questionable materials by choice. He explained why, in many cases, the censors were being vehemently opposed:

It has been due to the feeling that some branch of the government—post office, customs official, police, or mayor—has sought to save us without our consent from what it considered a demoralizing book or play. The resentment is due to what seems to many an officious intrusion, an interference with the responsibility of the adult individual for his own moral welfare.
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