Banned Books Awareness: That Multi-headed Snake Called Censorship


Most people have either had the experience or been witness to the self-censorship that comes from the fear of causing offense to someone; some others may feel that over-protectiveness denies people the opportunity to decide for themselves where the moral line is when it comes to artful expression.

Most often, the freedom of expression is assumed rather than ensured; and that assumption is usually- and arrogantly- evident in the belief that popular opinion is guaranteed and the unpopular ones open to ridicule or subject to silence. This is why political pundit shows are able to push so many buttons.

Art, in its many forms, has been the subject of both national pride and heated disagreement since man first started drawing on cave walls; yet censorship is a serious threat to the longevity of artistic and self-expression. This is especially true of self-censorship because of its subjective and seemingly innocent, righteous nature.

The presence of self-censorship has grown slowly through recent years like a black storm cloud- at times just on the horizon and at times hovering overhead. Perhaps it conceals some injustice or uncomfortable truth about ourselves that we dare not speak of or face.

True artists, though, must have the resolve to embrace the potential storm. Pushing the edge of the comfort zone must also include a willingness to not only engage in, but to maintain a level of dialogue about the subject matter because the very nature of art is to explore those areas of society and the self that make people uncomfortable; to give us fresh and unconventional viewpoints to new or existing topics.

The debate over whether art has longevity and meaning always comes down to two seemingly polarized factions. Is an artist’s responsibility to challenge any conceivable boundary or taboo in society or is it to display society/culture in a light of utmost respect at all times.

Often this puts museums, art galleries, and public libraries in the middle of the censorship debate because, on one hand, they have to include all artists and authors equally without prejudice in order to not infringe on the creator’s right to self-expression, but they must also contend with the viewing public-, which can become a contradiction among itself. Many feel that concealing art for any reason infringes upon the public’s First Amendment rights but there always exists a small, but vocal, part of the public whose sensibilities run so thin that they feel their need to not be offended must come before the right of the majority to make their own choice.

Because of this, some establishments shy away from anything that has even the slightest possibility of creating controversy- especially if they are a publically funded entity like a library. This self-censorship does a serious disadvantage to the public by closing the door on an opportunity for public debate and compromise. Obviously there is a need for it at that point or their wouldn’t exist any perceived controversy to begin with.

At the core of this position is the fear that the controversy could turn violent, which unfortunately is sometimes the case. It is at this point that members of law enforcement may take it upon themselves to act in defiance of the public’s, or creator’s, right to free expression in exchange for the good of public safety.

Think about it- for as much opposition as I have to censorship at any level even I agree that the right to say what you want when you want does not extend to shouting “fire” in a public place because of the potential harm to the public.

The move by governments in recent years to privatize many organizations such as libraries and museums has the dark potential to add another level of restriction on controversial work, as financial sponsors tend to invest in commercially profitable events and venues. Many a television program has had their airtime threatened or taken away because of corporations unwilling to have their product ads run during a time slot or on a particular channel because of one reason or another.

Ireland’s President, Michael Higgins, this week warned the International Federation of Journalists’ world congress meeting in Dublin that the risk of censorship can also present itself in the form of “monopolies and oligarchy”.

Higgins said the threat to impartial and free journalism could flow from within the media sector as well as from without. “It can flow from the concentration of power of owners, cross-ownership, advertisers’ pressure, or even from the reticence of journalists to challenge received wisdom.”

He highlighted that the media landscape has changed considerably in recent decades and journalism would exist in different circumstances in the future thanks to the concentration of ownership, the fragmentation of audiences, and the convergence of technologies because two companies in the world control all of the media and newspaper outlets. Those corporations could have us believe what they want us to believe.

A less diverse media would be less willing to challenge established wisdom or the interests of those in power due to self-censorship. Journalists investigating political or corporate corruption could have their efforts hindered through intimidation by those with vested interests and release of information would be swayed by the personal opinions of those in charge of the publications.

Online technologies deliver some very profound opportunities for journalism because it opens up a global audience, thereby rendering national borders redundant.

Citizen journalists, civic groups, and “dispossessed” people can “take control of their own narratives,” he said. However, he warned that the consequences must not be ignored.

Search engines changed the way people access information, but what if the information allowed to appear on your screen was being controlled by, as Higgins put it, “vertically integrated media companies.”

“Even in those parts of the world where citizens are no longer misinformed by an ideological state media control, the risk of censorship can still present itself in the form of monopolies and oligarchy,” he said in the meeting’s opening address.

Take what happened in India for example. A recent judgment on the airing of “low value” television programming raises the question: should the state be giving advice to adults?

A few weeks ago, the Delhi High Court decided a case that is capable of having serious implications for the future of free speech in India. The case, Viacom 18 Media Private Ltd & Anr. Vs. Union of India, concerned a 10 day-ban imposed by the government on the channel “Comedy Central,” for broadcasting two programs last year which were purportedly “vulgar, obscene, and offending to good taste.” On May 24, a Delhi High Court judge upheld the ban by invoking the constitutional doctrine of “proportionality.” The ban has been temporarily lifted and the case is presently pending an appeal, but it may be worth noting some of the larger potential consequences of the court’s reasoning.

The Delhi High Court’s judgment suggests that in May 2012, Comedy Central broadcast a show in India called “Stand Up Club” at 8.52 p.m., in which a comedian sang a song entitled “Show me your genitals.” Two months later, Comedy Central broadcast another program called “Popcorn” at 7.57 a.m. where a hidden camera captured public reactions to a prankster’s lewd actions.

In terms of constitutional law, these programs could be considered “low value” speech- that is, with no redeeming literary, scientific, or artistic qualities. However, even “low value” speech is entitled to protections under the Constitution. In fact, the Supreme Court has a remarkably liberal record in cases involving “obscenity.” In the Comedy Central case, it is important to emphasize that what is at issue should not have been the content but rather the timing of its broadcast. Both shows were probably distasteful, but the very idea that the state needs to parent over its adult citizens is what is truly offensive. Sure, the Constitution chains the right to free speech with numerous “reasonable restrictions” on indecent or immoral speech, however, an outright ban prohibiting adults from viewing Comedy Central stretches the limits of “reasonableness.” The state has no business telling adults what they can and cannot watch.

It is the state’s duty though to protect children and to empower the parent, to ensure that programming of this kind is broadcast when, typically, only adults can view it and when parents can safely prohibit their children from watching it.

That was the finding in a famous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1978 (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation), where a New York radio station broadcast a 12-minute monologue containing several profane words at 2:00 in the afternoon. The court upheld regulations aimed at directing the monologue to “hours when the fewest unsupervised children would be exposed to it.”

Viacom contended that the government’s 10-day ban was “disproportionate” to the wrongdoing. The doctrine of “proportionality” is constitutional-law device under which courts strictly scrutinize the legality of government actions. Derived from courts in North America and Europe, “proportionality” calls on a court to decide whether the government used the “least injurious” means available to it while depriving a person of his fundamental rights. However, misinterpreting the proportionality doctrine in the Comedy Central case, the Delhi High Court worryingly held that it would only find government censorship disproportionate if it “shocks the conscience of the court.” This is highly problematic because fundamental rights will become exceedingly harder to enforce if every government action must go to the unthinkable extreme of “shocking the conscience of the court” in order for it to be held illegal.

For the most part there will always be artistic freedom with our without the consent or guarantee by the state because there will always be those who take up the task of pushing the boundaries of thought. If there weren’t then music, movies, graphic art, and literature would all cease to exist and we become mindless sheep.

Artists do not live in self-sustaining bubbles. Those with the power to decide what goes into the public arenas must continue to have the courage to support those things that push into uncomfortable areas. If artistic expression is worth keeping then it must be defended at all costs and against every attack.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Irish Times, The Hindu
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

2 thoughts on “Banned Books Awareness: That Multi-headed Snake Called Censorship

  1. Pingback: You Can't Read That! | Paul's Thing

  2. Pingback: Sometimes Limiting Free Speech is Necessary | Banned Books Awareness

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