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Censorship temptation: Let let government control speech
Douglas Young
There's never a shortage of temptations to ignore our First Amendment right of free expression and pervert the law into a billy club to banish disturbing speech.

Now many demand we outlaw mean folks shouting vile epithets about homosexuals at funerals, ads for "unhealthy" food targeted at children and "inappropriate" Internet content.

But freedom fans know that, as George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984) observed, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

Indeed, as Justice Harlan Fiske Stone noted, "If only popular causes are entitled to enjoy the benefit of constitutional guarantees, they serve no purpose, and could as well not have been written."

Furthermore, we're all vulnerable to the whims of speech censors. As Thomas Jefferson understood, "It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others."

Ironically, totalitarians may appreciate even more the power of freedom and the ideas it communicates. Vladimir Lenin (not good Beatle John, but bad commie Vlad) proclaimed, "It is true that liberty is precious, so precious that it must be rationed." His even bigger mass-murdering disciple, Josef Stalin, stated, "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?"

Alas, the world is littered with formerly free lands transformed into totalitarian plantations by snowballing restrictions on individual expression, and usually out of a sincere conviction to stop speech decent folk find repellent.

Anyone defending the right to voice politically incorrect views is deemed as defending the indefensible. So, to protect "decency," "national security," "public health," "minorities," "the majority," "women," and, best of all, "the children," so many nefarious forms of expression are excised from public discourse that pretty soon there is no more public discourse, at least none deviating from the official party line.

To respect the privacy right of grieving families as well as everyone's free speech rights, why not impose standard time, place and manner regulations on funeral protesters? As we do with picketers at abortion clinics, make them stand far away from the church so families can mourn their beloved in peace, while the professionally passionate can still preen for their camera gods. And hopefully the rest of us will ignore them since attention is their oxygen.

To combat childhood obesity, instead of banning junk food ads, how about parents daring to take responsibility for their children's diet and, by setting a good example, improve the whole family's health? Can government really do a better job here than committed parents?

As for unsettling Internet content, who is a better filter for what you read, you or the state? Why entrust bureaucrats to be nannies for your mind?

As Jefferson declared, "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." So fight bad speech with your own good reply.

In fact, contrary to what "1984" implied, it's precisely today's unprecedented flowering of the means of mass communication that has empowered more people than ever to stand tall for truth and freedom, making it harder for dictators to keep their citizens ignorant and oppressed.

Witness the fall of the cruel communist tyrannies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the dramatic liberalization of post-Maoist China, and exciting liberty liberation movements, even in a Muslim theocracy like Iran.

The root of censorship is a lack of faith in people. The censor is an arrogant elitist idealist bent on saving the rest of us from our own ignorant, depraved selves. Since he lacks confidence in his ideas' currency, he stifles all opposition.

This epitomizes today's politically correct speech cops on so many American campuses who are ultimately totalitarians seeking what censors sought in "1984:" "It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all, and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."

Rest assured, there's never a dearth of fervent ideologues and purists, secular and religious alike, eager to legally pounce on any deviation from their enlightened orthodoxy. But witness the bitter fruit of such repressive regimes as revolutionary France, communist Russia, Nazi Germany, Muslim theocratic Saudi Arabia, Castro's Cuba and Chavez's Venezuela.

While none would permit the controversial expressions many seek to end here now, neither did any of these statist societies sanction the most basic right of the people to even question their rulers.

Remember that our Bill of Rights is a Ten Commandments of thou-shalt-nots restraining the state since rights are granted by God, not government.

Douglas Young is a professor of political science and history at Gainesville State College in Oakwood.