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.


When we turn from the protection of adolescents to the problem of the adult, a quite different point of view is imposed, though certain prohibitions still seem to be justifiable. The adult has a right to be protected against the display of offensive print or pictures where he cannot avoid them. The covers of books and magazines, and still more posters, are a fair subject of police control, since it is practically impossible not to have them thrust upon one's notice. Nor is the risk poor judgment in selecting those to be suppressed an important one. One cannot honestly pretend that even a mistakenly rigorous policy in such matters would deprive the world either truth or beauty to a noticeable degree. The principle embodied in the pure-food law might also be invoked with regard to 'blurbs' and other advertising matter intended to mislead the purchaser of books or theatre tickets. The worst of such tend sometimes to exaggerate, sometimes to hide, the wickedness of the volume or the play or picture; but in any case the law which already seeks to enforce honesty in advertising might well be carried farther into the field.

The opposition to the activity of the censor, however, has not been roused by attempts to save the sensibilities of the public from the outrages of the poster or the jacket. 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.

The ease of the opposition has been strengthened by a number of considerations which, while not of the essence of the question, have made the censorship fatuous as well as annoying. Most detached observers would think it self-evident that the various agencies chosen by the law for the exercise of a difficult and delicate function could hardly have been more unfortunately selected. They would suppose that it is the business of the post office to carry mail, and that officials chosen for this purpose have no inherent fitness as judges of art or morals; that it is the business of the customs officer to collect revenue and prevent smuggling, not to pass on the value of Voltaire or Rabelais; that a policeman's duty makes demands on his courage, judgment, and loyalty, but ought not to be enlarged to include literary or dramatic criticism. In these suppositions most people would agree, and it is hardly worth while to insist on them.

Again the effect of attempted suppression has not been such as to raise the prestige of the censors. It is now manifest that no advertisement is so effective in giving a book a nation-wide sale as its prohibition in a large city. Thus, though it may be argued that, since any such prohibition ought to be a reflection of a dominant public opinion, censorship ought to be in the hands of local governments, exercise of it by a local government stimulates its sale outside and does not prevent surreptitious importation on a large scale.

The statutes of Massachusetts, where the question under discussion is being most violently debated at the moment, contribute another argument to the opposition's case, since they make legal the condemnation of a book on the basis of detached passages. Time was when the Commonwealth was proud of its reputation of leadership in scholarship; but there is no greater sin in the decalogue of scholarship than that of the ignoring of the context. Yet, when a modest attempt was made to amend the statute, the legislature voted to continue a practice in the highest degree unscholarly, unjust, and dishonest.

The absurdities of the customs censorship have been most effectively exposed by Senator Cutting of New Mexico in a recent debate, and he succeeded in inducing the Senate to relieve our revenue officers from an impossible duty as far as concerned the morality of literary works. He was less successful in connection with works supposed seditious, and apparently it will still be possible for the question whether professors of government and economics can obtain copies of the works of Karl Marx or of Lenin for examination in their classrooms to be settled on the wharves of New York.

These absurdities in the administration of censorship serve only to strengthen the independent thinker's resentment against the essence of the practice. The saving of a man's soul, which one must presume is the object of the censorship, is after all a man's own affair, and is not to be achieved by external compulsion or guardianship. It is of a man's free will that he buys a ticket for a play or borrows a book from the library. If he wants to pander to the lower side of his nature, no censor will prevent him.

Such arguments sometimes lead defenders of the censorship to abandon the strictly moral issue and seek a basis for suppression on aesthetic grounds. But it is clear that these give no firmer footing. The whole question of standards in art is dragged in, and it becomes evident that the result of decisions on the ground of good or bad art could only be the legalizing of the timid and conventional, and the blocking of all progress by the suppression of innovation and experiment. The fact that my personal taste is offended does not give me the right to interfere with my neighbor's choice of reading or of plays, unless he insists on reading aloud in my presence or forcing me to the theatre.

A variant of the aesthetic argument is that which advocates prohibition of a production because it deals with disease. The pathological, we are told, is no fit subject for art. But no one really believes in a principle that would prohibit Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth because all three interest us in madness.


There are doubtless other principles involved in this difficult matter, and I shall be glad if this attempt to draw out those most obvious provokes a more capable analyst to complete the task. In doing so he must find the ground for depriving the adult citizen of the privilege of choosing his own books and his own plays and pictures, he must find a method of selecting censors wise enough to suppress only what is really demoralizing without stifling progress and experiment, and he must hit upon a device which will prevent banning a book or play from advertising it. And, lest he think that it is safer to err on the side of suppression than on the side of freedom, let him remember that it is through freedom and not through compulsion that the human spirit gains in power and reach.

'Under what precise set of conditions,' writes Sir Walter Raleigh of the novels of Fielding, 'and exactly by what persons, he is to be read is a question that need trouble no one long. Books are written to be read by those who can understand them; their possible effect on those who cannot is a matter of medical rather than of literary interest. Some literary critics, it is true, with a taste for subdued tones in art, have found some of Fielding's loudest notes too strident for enfeebled ears, but not to the great musician can the whole range of the orchestra, not to the great paint can the strongest contrast of colours, profitably be denied.'