Saturday, February 10, 2007


Sheila, on her blog, raised the issue of censorship. I have a slightly different take than she does. Only slightly.

About four years back I was at a Barnes and Noble and found a magazine in their "Current Affairs" section which purported to expose the secret conspiracies operating to destory us as Americans. The villains, of course, were African Americans and Jews. The magazine was basically a neo Nazi rag.

I went to the desk and complained. The woman at the counter told me central office determined control of what magazines were made available in the stores. I contacted the central office and was told that Barnes and Noble was loathe to practice censorship. I followed my initial contact with a letter writing campaign and a petition. I also threatened to enlist the aid of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The corporation pulled the magazine from their shelves.

I felt I had acted nobly. Some people wondered if I had interfered with freedom of speech.

So, the question posed is this: When is censorship, if ever, justified? In the case of Barnes and Noble, they had every right to pull the magazine. They are a private corporation and they were responding to consumer pressure. But what about Rush Limbaugh's statements directed toward Barrack Obama as a Halfrican? What about the numerous statements by radio talk show hosts, left and right wing, which are nothing more than cruel ad hominem attacks that are nothing other than slander and do nothing more than serve to polarize our country. Should we try and censor them? Should we hold them accountable in any way? Should we reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine that Ronald Reagan demolished?

I argue that freedom of speech comes with responsibility, and sometimes it carries a consequence. Sheila's major complaint in her most recent posting was that in college she felt certain professors were forced to walk on eggshells for fear of punishment for espousing views contrary to the mainstream. Perhaps some of these views dealt with homosexuality, abortion, or the use of words not accepted by the FCC. However, what if these professors were espousing views that genocide was a good thing, that the holocaust never happened, that Muslims were subhuman. What then? Should we still stand for complete and unabridged freedom of speech?

I am a writer and as such, I am quite sensitive to freedom of speech and censorship. However, freedom of speech carries with it responsibility. It is NOT always okay to say what one wants. I don't believe I have the answer to what is right and what is wrong. I believe it's a matter of each situation being taken on its own merit and in context. Do I believe Janet Jackson should be fined by the FCC to the tune of five hundred thousand dollars? Of course not. That's just right wing hypocrisy. I do believe though that we should always guard our freedom of speech and at the same time hold all accountable for what they say.

Remember, whatever freedom is given to one point of view, must be given to another point of view. And all rules should apply equally.

As a writer, I understand that from time to time my views will be challenged. Editors will shut me off. People will criticise me. It's been the plight of writers for centuries, and maybe that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some of us play it safe. Some of us challenge the status quo and accept the consequences as a badge of honor.


Lucas Pederson said...

Yes. Freedom of speech should be guarded. It's great to be able say what you think. Yet, there are a lot of things you can't say for fear of being offensive or down right rude to another party. Take my gore probalem for example. Now some think of that as a rude attempt to shock the reader. It surely wasn't intended that way, but some people see it that way and it's fine.
But I think your actions against that rubbish neo-nazi rag was very noble indeed. It's something I would have done if I had found it. That sort of stuff is simply hate. And the world has enough of that crap. Too much.
Great post.

SQT said...

This came up a lot when I was in school for my Journalism major; as you can imagine.

The main argument then for absolute freedom of speech was that in order for us to have access to views that we approve of, we also need to allow that which we don't like.

In the end it all comes down to who you want as your censor? George Bush or some other religious wing nut? I should hope not. But a lot of people disapprove of homosexuality and maybe wouldn't try too hard if certain interest groups were to try to keep TV shows that feature that lifestyle from airing.

I think we've pretty much passed that point. But there is always something that gets the ire of the public up. I don't like profanity on TV when my kids can hear it, but I like the "Girls Gone Wild" garbage much less. That stuff I can't control since I don't know when it'll appear on the TV. But objectionable material in bookstores can only be purchased by those who deliberately go there to purchase it. And honestly, anyone who really wants it will find a way to get it. The internet will see to that.

Irene said...

Excellent piece, Stewart. People often misconstrue freedom as being able to do what you want. I believe freedom is being able to choose what is right.

Lee said...

Interesting points, all of them. I go to college myself, and I sometimes see the professors bite their tongues in order to not express a view they think might be controversial. I've even heard a professor outright say, "I like this job too much to jeapordize it." I can respect that. Truth is, if you offend the right person, they will do what they can to destroy you.

As far as censorship of the media, I think I kind of like everyone being all "out there" for the world to see. Do I wish Rush Limbaugh would shut the hell up? Why yes, I do. But I can choose to not tune in and there is an added benefit. If someone is a Limbaugh fan and shares his views, I would rather know it than not know it.

I think a privately owned book chain has every right to censor their stock. Now a public library seems like it would offer more of a challenge.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lucas, freedom isn't an easy issue. Lee pointed out that censorship in a books store is one thing, in a library it's something else. I am not advocating censorship, but Lee...if the library is paid with tax dollars, then is it not accountable to the tax payers in that community? Or it is responsible to a different standard regardles of the desires of the people who give it the money to keep it running?

SQT in journalism there are two masters, the publisher and lawyer. The publisher won't get involved most times, unless it comes on the editorial page, and the lawyer holds to those magic words: WITH ABSENCE OF MALICE.

Thanks Irene, I agree with you. One thing people may notice is that I am not taking a hard line here. I am not necessarily coming down on the left or the right, or even in the middle.

I took a stance with Barnes and Noble because they are a private corporation. I'm not fond of Barnes and Noble.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lucas, freedom isn't an easy issue. Lee pointed out that censorship in a books store is one thing, in a library it's something else. I am not advocating censorship, but Lee...if the library is paid with tax dollars, then is it not accountable to the tax payers in that community? Or it is responsible to a different standard regardles of the desires of the people who give it the money to keep it running?

SQT in journalism there are two masters, the publisher and lawyer. The publisher won't get involved most times, unless it comes on the editorial page, and the lawyer holds to those magic words: WITH ABSENCE OF MALICE.

Thanks Irene, I agree with you. One thing people may notice is that I am not taking a hard line here. I am not necessarily coming down on the left or the right, or even in the middle.

I took a stance with Barnes and Noble because they are a private corporation. I'm not fond of Barnes and Noble.

SQT said...

The publisher won't get involved most times, unless it comes on the editorial page, and the lawyer holds to those magic words: WITH ABSENCE OF MALICE.

Oh too true. The media will publish anything that doesn't have libel or slander all over it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Here's my problem with the situation at Barnes N Nobles regarding the Neo-Nazi type rag. Who benefits from it's removal? Who benefits from it being left? Who is harmed in either case? Stewart found the magazine and looked over it's content, was offended by it, and--if anything--strengthened his personal disapproval of such attitudes. Some people who might have made the same discovery as Stewart and been offended might have had their eyes opened as to the insidious nature of prejudice. Now those people will not get a chance to make that discovery. Could we say that they've been protected from thinking? Perhaps. And if someone who is reasonable reads such material is it going to suddenly make them prejudiced? No. Have they had their sensibilities protected if such material is removed? Yes. But is that a good thing? Perhaps.

The reason I think of such things is that when I was in college I kept hearing how awful "Mein Kampf" was but I couldn't seem to find anyone who had actually read it. I also couldn't find a copy of it. I was a history buff so I searched it out and read it myself. I found, through actual experience as a thinking individual, that "Mein Kampf" is a racist, brutal screed. I was appalled that any human being could even concieve of such a work. I also found it horribly repetitive and boring, and it seemed to me that "Mein Kampf" almost should be required reading in a free society. This is the kind of thing against which we should always be vigilant. And frankly, if the anyone on the ally side would have read "Mein Kampf" before World War II erupted they would have a fricking blueprint for Hitler's plans. Talk about being inside the other team's huddle.

Free speech is a complicated issue. I agree that not everything can be tolerated in the public arena. But we also cannot protect people from exposure to the poisons among us to the extent that they become ignorent of the danger.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Sticky issue, isn't it, Charles? I make no defense for my action at Barnes and Noble other than a vindictive gesture toward people whose views I found personally offensive. Lofty? No. However, it does show the power that we can act to bring about some measure of change.

You're right about Mein Kampf, I consider it worth reading. If we were in the midst of WWII, and there were Nazi's around like Henry Ford, I don't know. My views on this change constantly and are definitely situational. They are also emotion based.

Would I do the protest at Barnes and Noble again? Yes. I already tried with another publication that was anti-Muslim. They shook their heads and me and pointed to the fact the book was a hot seller on the FOX news website. It always comes down to money, doesn't it?

So...I guess I'll continue to be the activist I was in the early seventies.

Lee said...

Stewart - "the library is paid with tax dollars, then is it not accountable to the tax payers in that community?"

What about the tax payers who are awful Nazi sympathizers in your community? Do they get a say since they pay taxes? I think it's a tough issue. I don't know what's right. I remember when Catcher in The Rye was considered highly offensive and subversive. For me, it's always about someone else drawing that line for me and mine. If Jesse Helms had his way, we would have fewer options.

I like Charles Gramlich's point. I was thinking about how I would feel if my kids came across something like this in the book store or the library. I would hope that they would be shocked and offended and then, aware that there are bad people in the world. And I hope that the material would strengthen their dissapproval of crackpots.

Not arguing with you's such a sticky, interesting issue.

SQT said...

My Dad has a copy of "Mein Kampf" for the same reason Charles mentioned. He is the least predjudiced person I know, but he wanted to know what the heck he was talking about if he were to speak out against it.

I think Charles is dead on when he says no amount of censorship will change views already held. Being able to access material that strengthens your opinion won't really make a difference either. People will believe what they want to believe.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lee...I agree one hundred percent.

SQT, are you then arguing for no censorship? Where is the line drawn? If there is a call to arms to kill Muslims, is that okay? Should it not be confronted at its source? Some say we shouldn't censor anything, leave it alone. Then is it okay to have pornography on televion at the dinner hour? If not, why? Shouldn't parents be accountable to take responsibility for what their children watch? Shouldn't I have the right to watch it if someone wants to broadcast?

I have no answers? Each time I try and answer a question here, six or seven contradictory points jump up that make me challenge myself.

I suppose we each must rely on a moral compass. And again, my action at the Barnes and Noble was to hit a Nazi group in the pocket wasn't as much about free speech for me as fighting back with one of the weapons I had available: The pressures of the marketplace.

Lee said...

You got me thinkin...had to write about it. Hope you don't mind I mentioned your post.

SQT said...


Maybe you and I have different ideas on what censorship means. My view is that if something is widely available, then it isn't censored. Just because we don't air porn on prime time doens't mean you can't get it if you want it. You can order it on pay-per-view 24 hours a day if that's your thing.

But if stuff starts getting pulled off the shelves, then we're talking censorship. I don't think it's bad that you got some neo-nazi crap off the shelves since I find it objectionable. But I would be pissd of some religious wing-nut got Harry Potter pulled. Not because it's the best book in the world, but because I think it's harmless.

I don't know where to draw the line though. I think virtually anything is available to those who want it on the internet, so why should we put stuff that has no redeeming value on store shelves? I doubt it would make enough money for the bookstores to justify it.

I guess I just get squeamish when I think of some politician trying to set the limits. I don't think they really give a damn about anything anyway, they're just trying to stay in office. So I don't trust public officials to make common sense decisions.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, to me censorship is suppression of materials before or after they are disseminated. I'm with you though, I have strong feelings about it, and yet sometimes I am left scratching my head.

I support the Klan's right to protest, but if a kid at school wore a klan shirt, I would kick him out. I support Ann Coulters' right to exist, but not to communicate with sentient creatures.

The danger of censorship or any form of suppression is that it is so quickly abused and utilized for the wrong reasons.

Bob said...

NO CENSORSHIP. Personal responsibility instead. If you don't agree with neo-nazis, don't read their material. Who are you to decide that their material is offensive and needed to be removed? The foundation of our, and any other, democracy is freedom of expression - speech. Look at Russia, where political parties are routinely banned. Ditto Egypt. Both are supposed democracies where "reasons" have been found to suppress what amounts to opposition to entrenched power.

What happened to "I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it"? If you, or anyone else, sets themselves up as arbiters of what is proscribed speech then we are at your mercy as to what you think is right. Even if the majority of people would agree some of your decisions, who's to say that all of your decisions would be so received? to whom do we appeal your decisions? Defending your actions to remove the neo-nazi paper as an economic one, that any business has the absolute right to not sell something does not disguise the fact that you decided that no one should be able to purchase and read that material.

People have to take responsibility for what they say - and for what they read. If you don't want your kids to watch porn on TV, turn the channel or turn the TV off. If you disagree with neo-nazi views, don't read their material. If you want the neo-nazi group to suffer a financial setback, boycott them - not B & N for selling it. A Citizen in any democracy has the responsibility to have the courage of their convictions - to be informed about the issues - and to vote accordingly. You can't protect them from what YOU consider bad or wrong, nor should you. After all, under our constitution, the neo-nazis have every right to hold those unpopular opinions.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Funny you should mention this. I did a post (Creeps in Sheets) in January that dealt with the issue of First Amendment rights.

I have always championed all rights, but believe that Nazi/Klan/kiddieporn/snuffstuff, etc. is so objectionable that it should not be allowed.

Of course I feel like a hypocrite. So my rational mind is at war on these issues with my emotions, and I really wish they could agree because it's wearing me out.

I think that if the standard of redeeming social value were applied to the neo-Nazi garbage being sold at B&N, it had no business being there.

Censorship is a slippery slope. But allowing impressionable young people to be seduced by vile and dangerous ideas is perhaps even more slippery.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Bob, I am who I am. If I can stop them, in any way, I am pleased to do so. If you want to read their swill, and I don't think you do, then you wont find it at Barnes and Noble, a private corporation which had the right to tell me NO, just as I had the right to ask them not to carry the magazine. And why shouldn't I threaten B and N? Again, isn't that my right?

People have the right to express their opinions, but there are always consequences. And while I admire your libertarian view, we don't live in a perfect world. I think sometimes things need to be regulated.

There is no such thing as total freedom of speech. The world doesn't operate by absolutes.

HEARTS, I agree. As you've seen in my post and in my comments, this is an issue that I sway back and forth over. I understand Bob's point of view, but I don't think the issue of censorship is one where we can just make sweeping statements to cover it.

Bob said...

yes - you do have the right to protest and B&N had the right to say no. Every society has to decide what is okay for itself. But times change. What we consider offensive today won't always be. There are still laws on the books that require cows in public thoroughfares to be clothed. (I guess they didn't want kids walking down the street to see a bull's equipment.)

I understand about wanting to protect children from things we view as morally repugnant. My wife and I raised two children who are now grown. I took it as my responsibility to either keep certain material away from my children or to make sure they understood why what they saw or heard was bad. I did not attempt to pass that responsibility off onto the tv networks or the FCC.

The biggest problem with limits on self expression is who gets to decide what the limits are? What I find to be unacceptable may be conventional to others - and vice-versa. However, I do agree that where there are issues of public safety people should be held accountable for actions that result in injury or could reasonably be expected to do so.

Overall, I think that of all of the rights enumerated in the constitution, this is the one that should be held in highest sanctity. It above all others should be rigorously protected as it most directly effects a democracy's ability to exist.

SQT said...

Something tells me that full-on complete no censorship wouldn't work.

All it would take would be one lawsuit from an angry parent that something innappropriate was accidentally viewed by their kid.

Our society is so litigious that we'd have to throw out a bunch of legal precedent in order to make total non-censorship possible. I can just imagine how many years that would bog down our justice system. Not that we couldn't use the overhaul.

And complete non-censorship would open the floodgates to stuff we just never thought about. Ratings (in other words--money) is king in the media, so we'd be blasted with even more foul stuff than the Paris, Brittney and Lindsay crap we're already bombarded with. ((shudder))

Like I said before, as non-censored as it can and should get is that everything should be availiable to whomever wants it. But we should still have standards for what is widely disseminated and broadcast.

Stewart Sternberg said...

BOB, SQT, I love these kinds of discussions.

Bob, by the way, I love the idea of cows wearing clothes. I wouldn't mind seeing a Victoria Secrets Bovine Line.

SQT...BOB...As I've said over and over again, I am conflicted about this issue. However, I still feel it is a situational thing and not an absolute.

I also agree that parents should control what their children watch and be the ultimate people responsible for determining their childrens' welfare. But the issue, as SQT states, is a matter of extremes. Do we have an over the airwaves porn station that children can access? Or an over the air violence network? I don't trust parents for the most part.
Actually I don't trust people at all.

SQT said...


As a teacher, you know better than to trust parents to actually pay attention to what their kids are watching. I mean, a video game called Mega Slaughter III would end up on video consoles everywhere no matter how many parental advisories it had on it.

As much as I fear putting to much control in the hands of politicians, I don't feel any more confident in most parents I know.

Clifford said...

Stewart, bravo! I tip my hat to you.

Until we adopt zero tolerance to racism, racism will be a problem. Turning away from it, as if it's okay, makes it okay.

Free speech shouldn't include hurting others. Children, especially those who are the victim of this trash, don't understand that what they see on television, read in books and magazines may not be true. They aren't old enough to parse this information.

I've always loved to read. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher gave me a copy of Tom Sawyer. I was devestated by it -- I didn't understand the time and place and historical relevance of the words, all I knew was that it was considered a classic, and this "classic" was telling me that I was a lesser human being than my white friends and neighbors. And that hurt pretty bad -- especially when my teacher came to me, gleefully, asking me how I liked the book. I remember mumbling that it was okay, not knowing how to talk about what I was feeling. All I knew was that I was different. Less worthy. Less important somehow. I'd read it in a book. A classic.

As an adult, I've talked with many of my white friends about this, many of whom had read the book but didn't remember the racist overtones in it...and that made me very, very sad.

We've entered into an era where hate speak is not only accepted, but in certain circles, encouraged. This acceptance has made the vermin more vocal and more able to spread their hate and increase their ranks. Afterall, they're on television, radio, and in our magazines. That, my friends, gives them validity and value they don't deserve.

Censorship is wrong, but there are worse evils.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Clifford, I agree. I was sitting, thinking about this post, and the controversy it caused, when I thought about that know the one where the narrator talks about ignoring the different hate groups until one day there was no one left to protect him from them?

Clifford said...


Yeah, that poem pretty much hit the nail on the head. In the end, I'm convinced, the only thing that matters is how we treat each other. Keep fighting the good fight!

Erika said...

Hmm. It's a tough issue. I do think you were right in saying that mag was wrong...

However, I do think Censorship has gone way overboard. I'm a Howard Stern Fan and I listen to music with cuss words. To me this is O.K. As far as that stuff goes people have an option to listen or not to listen, and parents should somewhat monitor their kids... same with the mag, to read or not to read, but I just feel that things like that - mean and hateful shouldn't be allowed.

The world may never know