Drawing the Line on the New Censorship

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Drawing the Line on the New Censorship

Censorship is a great temptation, particularly when we see something that offends or frightens us. At such times, our best defense is to remember what J. M. Coetzee writes in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. "By their very nature, censors wound their own vision when they restrict what others can see. The one who pronounces the ban ... becomes, in effect, the blind one, the one at the center of the ring in the game of blind man's bluff."

But the new landscape of ideas and their control leaves many people queasy and uneasy about media, morality, and responsibility. If censorship is wrong and impossible, how then to address the issue of people and companies that use media irresponsibly?

Here's how I see it: It's appropriate to criticize media and products, movies, books, writings - whatever you consider offensive, dangerous, manipulative, or inaccurate. To notify companies that you won't buy their products, see their movies, recommend their books, even launch boycotts is fair game - although I've only rarely done so.

To me, censorship comes into being when the protest evolves past criticism and seeks to kill the very idea itself - damage the economic success of the movie, ban the book, deprive the album of distribution, pressure advertisers to withdraw and thus spur cancellation of the TV show, force the company to sell its rap music division.

It's this intent to remove ideas and their expression from the public realm that separates censorship from criticism.

That's why I was so uncomfortable about the effective campaign by a few people to cripple the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt in the name of feminism, and to lobby members of the Academy of Motion Picture Ar...

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...he First Amendment is our collective safety net.

Writing on the Web after being in print and television, having made the transition from an information culture that isn't very open to one that is extraordinarily free, I feel a special sensitivity to the fragile nature of unfettered speech.

It means letting other people's ideas reach their audience, even when they are obnoxious, offensive, or inaccurate.

And it means remembering the trade-off: Everyone gets to say what they want, as long as they don't provably harm or injure other people, and then you get to say what you want - which is indescribably and supremely valuable.

For me, free speech has never been a libertarian notion. It's not a trendy or anarchistic passion of the techno elite. It's an old value that requires constant maintenance, monitoring, reminding. It's the very stuff of patriotism.

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