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The Censor and the Civil Libertarian, continued

"I miss the fact that there is not more of the controversial issue material of The Day After and Something about Amelia, the programs that dealt with the issues of our times dramatically," said Schneider. "I think that's a loss."

The function of a gatekeeper as he molded it may too be lost, said Schneider. Although he makes the case in his book that the TV censor role should continue, he believes it will disappear in the next five years. Schneider has thus written the first book by a television censor and perhaps the last. The Gatekeeper may spark debate among First Amendment absolutists and cultural warriors, but Schneider does not doubt that this once reluctant gatekeeper fulfilled an important if misunderstood function.

* * *

Marjorie Heins '78 would consider censoring a work that has been proven to harm children. She just hasn't found one yet. And, boy, has she looked.

In Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, Heins uncovers a pattern of censorship throughout history, all justified by the need to protect children. In each case, the underlying assumption that adults should shield children from certain books, images, and speech is rarely questioned. But Heins does, and finds the ultimate straw man in the debate over the limits of the First Amendment.

Heins, director of the ACLU Arts Censorship Project for eight years, helped litigate Reno v. ACLU, which challenged the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Currently director of the Free Expression Policy Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Heins was inspired to write the book by her own experiences fighting censorship. Yet she also approached the subject without an agenda, she said. And she buttressed her conclusions with copious research (the book contains more than 1,000 footnotes) and a measured approach to a subject that has defined her career.

"What became increasingly apparent to me was that frequently the justification for the censorship initiative was the kids," she said. "Sure, we have the First Amendment for adults, and adults were presumed to somehow make their way through the marketplace of ideas, but kids have to be protected or shielded or censored and not allowed to have access to some kinds of art, entertainment, and ideas. It was always assumed that this was a legitimate, compelling government interest."

In her book, Heins details judicial decisions that deny First Amendment rights for the sake of children. Though in the guise of protecting children, the decisions often served to restrict adult access, she writes. They include FCC v. Pacifica, or the "seven dirty words" case, which allowed the FCC to ban the broadcast of George Carlin's scatological monologue about forbidden language. Justices have also betrayed a paternalistic attitude, according to Heins, as evidenced by Justice Warren Burger's fear in the Bethel School District v. Fraser case that a student's risquÈ speech at an assembly would offend the sensibilities of young females in the audience.

These cases follow a tradition of censorship arguments, which Heins charts from the days of Plato. The philosopher urged a ban of the written description of the gods' erotic activities because it would "engender laxity of morals among the young." That sentiment was advanced by Anthony Comstock, the infamous American censor who warned that there is "no more active agent employed by Satan in civilized communities to ruin the human family than evil reading."

Though many Americans and their legislators even today may agree with Plato and Comstock, Heins contends that social scientists have never proven that any identifiable subject has changed children's behavior in a predictable manner. "Provocative ideas in art or entertainment do affect the human psyche in myriad ways," she writes. "It is just that these effects cannot be quantified." In addition, according to Heins, materials designed for children--movies such as Bambi and stories such as Treasure Island--can frighten youngsters more than so-called "adult" material. But few would campaign to censor Disney movies.

Heins does not argue that unfettered access to all forms of expression would benefit children. Even as some studies have claimed that violent images may help create violent children, Heins cautions against simplistic conclusions. "When you look at it, the definitions of violent entertainment are all over the lot," she said. "There's very little attempt to put violence in context, so it would be impossible to frame any kind of censorship legislation that would pinpoint what the harm is."

Rather than "intellectual protectionism," Heins advocates media literacy programs and sexuality education to help children cope with their surroundings. She also questions the efficacy of "forbidden speech zones," which may attract children to the very material that adults would deny them. Better, she said, to teach children to make the best choices than to pretend those choices don't exist.

"Kids are going to make some choices about culture, and those choices can be influenced by their interaction with their parents and their teachers," said Heins. "It's sort of similar to food. I think when your kid is a baby you can feed them good healthy baby food. Once they get into nursery school, they're going to start learning about the other temptations, so the most parents can do is to try to continue to make some rules and try to explain why they're the right rules."

Heins concludes that concerns about violence, language, and sex "have more to do with socializing youth than with the objective proof of psychological harm." Censorship on behalf of children, she believes, is really done for the adults who demand it.

The Gatekeeper
My 30 Years as a TV Censor
by Alfred Schneider '52
Syracuse University Press, April 2001

Not in Front of the Children
Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth

by Marjorie Heins '78
Hill and Wang, May 2001

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