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With the likes of Elton John, Whoopie Goldberg, The Dixie Chicks and half of the “entertainers” in Hollywood screaming about censorship, I decided to take a look at what censorship is and is not. More bloggers than can be counted have chimed in on this, but I felt it important that I present my beliefs.

First, lets take a look at the definition of censorship.  I chose the Wikipedia definition because it is fairly broad.

Censorship is the use of state or group power to control freedom of expression.

OK, let’s look at the two groups that can censor freedom of expression. First we have the State power, i.e. government. They do this through the use of such tools as Prior Restraint, that is, making something illegal before it actually happens. An example would be the Federal Government passing a law that makes it illegal to say anything negative about the President. Obviously here in the US that would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment, though some agencies (rightfully or not) such as the FCC have latitude in this area.

The second part of the Wikipedia definition is a bit more vague. It involves group power. But, what is group power? I would say that group power would belong to some person or group with direct power to prevent someone from freely expressing themselves, though I would not place employers in this category as they should be fully free to set conditions for employment, including prohibition of public expressions of opinion by its employees that may result in financial damage to the employer. In addition, consumers boycotting some product would not fall into this group since they could not directly prevent the expression and fully have the right to choose which products they will or will not consume based on any reason they choose.

Now that we understand what censorship is and is not, let’s take a look at a few of the claims of censorship.

Recently Whoopie Goldberg chose to make some drunken remarks at a Kerry fundraiser. As a result, she was summarily dismissed from her job as spokesperson for SlimFast. She blamed this censorship on the “Republican election committee.” Was it censorship? No, there was no action by either the state or a group meeting the above criteria.

Last year, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” As a result, there was a mass boycott of the Dixie Chicks albums. Of course, they too yelled censorship. Again, there was no action that met the above criteria.

So, if not censorship, what did these celebs experience? They experienced what Alexis de Tocqueville called social pressure. As celebrities, they live and die by public opinion. For some reason, they expect the public to only look at their work and not at their publicly stated opinions. However, that is not how humans work. We generally look at all known aspects of a person to determine if we like someone or not. While celebrities enjoy the fame and fortune that comes from a positive public opinion of them, they don’t want to be held accountable when they say or do something that elicits a negative response. While words may be freely spoken, you must understand that those words are likely to have consequences.

Well if those two examples aren’t censorship, what is? A good example is China blocking websites or running down students in Tiananmen Square. Another would be the burning of 20,000 books deemed offensive by the Nazi regime in 1933.

Censorship is a strong claim and like racism, is a term used far too frequently. It is time for people to start using the language in a responsible manner, lest these words lose their strength and just become everyday words.

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About S Michael Moore

  • This entry is an odd take on censorship. One definitely does not have to look to China for examples of prior restraint, especially post 9/11. Part of the problem, as Bob has said, is a failure to define censorship properly. I will try to get around to writing about Bellotti, the most relevant case in regard to elections and free expression, this week.

  • OK, I let this slide the first time but you pedants really need to be corrected:

    First of all, Wikepedia is not a legitimate dictionary — it accepts contributions by anonymous Web writers and has no academic review process. Even Al Barger could write an entry, for godsakes.

    The word “censor” means “to examine in order to suppress or DELETE anything considered objectionable.”

    Yes, we most often find this impulse to control free speech in government regulation. But the argument that private media’s control of free expression in putatively free forums isn’t the censorship mentality is silly. One of the biggest dangers in our culture now is that people take it upon themselves to act as though they were authorities or magistrates monitoring the “morals and values” expressed through speech.

    Al Barger: no one knows what the hell you’re talking about with McCain-Feingold and the movie you speak of. Campaign finance reform isn’t a first amendment issue — it doesn’t regulate CONTENT as much as it regulates spending and access to media to ensure a level playing field and limit corporate domination of the political CONTENT and speech you claim to defend.
    While it’s true that powerful and moneyed interests crowding out access to the public sphere might not be explicit censorship and prohibition, it does have almost the same effect: it’s an implicit acceptance of the irrelevance and willfull, functional exclusion of marginal (like the Libertarian Party) and unpopular speech. The “market” most certainly does not protect or support democratic ideas of expression and speech and right-wingers of the libertarian variety who prefer the “market” view of free speech often find themselves very susceptible to having their own voices rendered meaningless by the anti-democratic impulses of corporate priorities. Let me assure you that the LEAST threatened speech in this country is corporate financing for elections. To isolate that as the locus of your criticism of censorship misses the boat completely and is entirely out of touch.

    Also, weren’t you the one defending censorship on the post about your “candidacy”? You lack all credibility on this issue. RJ: I’m also a bit surprised that you don’t have more self-reflective capacity on this issue since you yourself were censored.
    Don’t let your experience get in the way of your hard-right principles, right? For libertarians, you boys sure seem confused and willing to hide behind inaccurate semantic distinctions.

    You can sit silent and have nothing to say because you’re wrong once again, Al. Just like the Cosby discussion, just like the Ayn Rand nonsense. Are you sure you believe in the value of public debate, Senator? Or does fear trump all those muddled principles?

    Phillip: I dare you to censor this post. Give us a good example of the censorship impulse of our culture.

    That is all.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    I agree that limiting campaign contributions is against the First Amendment right to free speech. The First Amendment is not absolute, however (Ya can’t yell “Movie!” in a crowded firehouse, after all.)

    I frankly am not sure how to reconcile limiting the obviously corrosive influence of money on politics with the right of people (even rich people) to make political speech.

    My official, throw-darts-at-it if you will, out-on-a-limb opinion on the matter:
    I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t know.

  • Actually, according to all three branches of the federal government, this is not true: An example [of censorship] would be the Federal Government passing a law that makes it illegal to say anything negative about the President. Obviously here in the US that would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment

    The First Amendment is void where prohibited by law, in particular the McCain-Feingold BCRA campaign finance law. It prohibits whole wide swaths of criticism of candidates for federal office during the period leading up to the election. At least one movie has had to be re-scheduled for release AFTER the election because they can’t even try to advertise it during the election season. That very much IS censorship.

    OK, end o’ rant.

  • boomcrashbaby

    Abusing words are common. Some of the words the right has abused and/or completely taken out of context lately would be:
    social anarchy
    weapons of mass destruction/terrorism
    traditional value
    liberal media

  • RJ

    The Left frequently abuses words like “fascist” and “racist” and “censorship” in order to gain support from people who do not actually understand the true meaning of these terms, but know only that there is a negative connotation implied.