Politics & Policy

The Wrong Kind of Censorship

A Supreme blow to the First Amendment.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m in favor of censorship, and, in all likelihood, so are you. The only difference is, if you’re a typical American, you either won’t admit it or you don’t know it. But look: If you think it’s a good idea for the government–federal, state, or local–to keep Triple-X porn off of Saturday-morning cartoon-hour TV, you’re in favor of censorship. If you don’t think neo-Nazis should be allowed to make presentations at your kid’s public school’s career day, you’re in favor of censorship. Heck, if you think the federal government is right to block cigarette companies from advertising to kids, you, my friend, are in favor of censorship.

#ad#So the relevant question–which is invariably overlooked–isn’t whether or not you are “for” or “against” censorship. The relevant question is, What do you want to censor? Or, how much censorship do you want?

Unfortunately, this country has become so contorted in its thinking about free speech, we’ve come to believe that censorship is merely the limitation of speech we like. If we think it’s really bad speech we call it “hate speech,” and then we say it’s okay to ban that. But even then we’re too chicken to call it censorship. If we think certain speech leads to bad things, we don’t say we should ban it, we just say we should “regulate” it as in the cases of tobacco advertising or pornography or plain old sex and violence on TV.

But when it comes to free expression, “regulations” are just a clever way to champion censorship while dodging the word.

For example, Congress says you cannot criticize the government, and we all run to the parapets and scream bloody murder about censorship. But if Congress says instead, “There shall be no criticism of the government on days which end in “y,” well, that’s just a new “regulation.” You’re free to say whatever you want about the government, just so long as you don’t say it on any of the seven days that just happen to end in “y.”

The same goes for a regulation that limits or bans the amount of money you spend or when you spend it. The government might say: Sure, take out an ad in the New York Times denouncing the war in Iraq, or the partial-birth ban, or the way squirrels steal nuts from your birdfeeder, for all we care. But don’t you dare spend any money on that ad. Or, don’t you dare spend that money when people are actually holding an election or considering a law, or even when they’re discussing the issue in question.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the Supreme Court has just upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold. It regulates to whom, how, and when citizens–acting in concert or alone–can express their political opinions. The details have been hashed out a zillion times. But the gist is: Groups like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and the NAACP will have a much more difficult time expressing their political views or criticizing politicians during an election season.

The law severely restricts the kinds of ads that can air or be printed in the run-up to an election. The intent is clearly censorious. John McCain has admitted, “If you cut off the soft money, you are going to see a lot less of (attack ads).” Marty Meehan, a major proponent of the law in the House, explained that you had to go after the ads airing right before the election, “because that’s when people are paying attention.” Would it be any less censorship if you passed a law that said you cannot criticize the government before midnight or after 4:00 A.M.? That’s what we used to do with “adult”-oriented programming because it threatened the morals of children. Maybe we should do the same thing with speech that threatens the power of incumbents?

“The notion that the government can tell an organization like the ACLU when and how it should address important civil liberties issues is a form of censorship masquerading as campaign finance reform,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero declared after the ruling.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, said the ruling is “the most significant change in the First Amendment since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to make it a crime to criticize a member of Congress.”

They’re both right.

But, again, I’m not against the ruling because it’s censorship. Censorship is a morally neutral government function. I’m against the ruling because it is precisely the kind of censorship the Constitution is supposed to limit to the maximum extent possible.

To me, all of these people who screech about how shifting a movie about Ronald Reagan from CBS to Showtime is “censorship” are buffoons, for reasons too extensive to recount in this limited space. The folks who exclaim that banning cigarette advertising to kids is censorship are right, but at least there’s an argument to be had over whether keeping kids off cigarettes is a legitimate state interest.

But political speech is what the First Amendment is about. The artistic types who think the First Amendment protects every taxpayer-financed bit of sacrilege on every public museum’s wall, may have every right to be angry about government censorship of art, but art wasn’t what the First Amendment was primarily designed to protect. The First Amendment was first and foremost designed to protect the expression of overtly political speech, of criticism of the government and elected officials.

But for some unfathomable reason, we’ve turned this logic on its head in this country. Today, highly educated people hurl their salad forks in rage over the “censoring” of a performance artist when she doesn’t get free money from the government. But they nod approvingly when the federal government tells the ACLU it can’t say what it pleases, when it pleases, about George Bush. We used to protect core rights by protecting peripheral rights. We’d say, “Sure, you have the right to smear your naked body with chocolate in the middle of Main Street,” because we figured, so long as that sort of asininity is protected, our most vital freedoms will surely be secured. But now our freedoms are rotting from the inside out. As Justice Scalia noted in his dissent, the court in the last four years alone has protected such “speech” as kiddy and cable porn, but it now finds direct criticism of politicians during an election to be deserving of regulation.

By the way, where the hell is this much-vaunted blogosphere? If three freshman congressmen from Wisconsin hinted that they wanted to regulate the use of umlauts on the internet in honor of Leif Ericson’s birthday, bloggers would be on the steps of Congress up-ending cans of gasoline on themselves in protest at such an infringement on free speech. But here we have all three branches of the government severely restricting independent speech outside of the dinosaurs of Old Media and the relative silence — minus a few noble exceptions (The Volokh conspiracy, Instapundit) — is deafening.

You may think this is all fine or even necessary, and we can have that argument. But at least have the courage to admit that it’s censorship–censorship you like.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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