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Censorship And Pop Culture Essay, Research Paper
“One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
Justice John M. Harlan, Cohen v. California (1971)
It is probably no accident that freedom of speech is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Constitution’s framers believed that freedom of inquiry and liberty of expression were the hallmarks of a democratic society.
Freedom of speech, of the press, of association, of assembly and petition — this set of guarantees, protected by the First Amendment, comprises what we refer to as freedom of expression. The Supreme Court has written that this freedom is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.
But in spite of its “preferred position” in our constitutional hierarchy, the nation’s commitment to freedom of expression has been tested over and over again. Especially during times of national stress, like war abroad or social upheaval at home, people exercising their First Amendment rights have been censored, fined, even jailed. Those with unpopular political ideas have always borne the brunt of government repression. It was during WWI — hardly ancient history — that a person could be jailed just for giving out anti-war leaflets. Out of those early cases, modern First Amendment law evolved. Many struggles and many cases later, ours is the most speech-protective country in the world. (Glasser, Visions of Liberty, 1991.)
Three Reasons Why Freedom of Expression Is Essential to a Free Society
It is the foundation of self-fulfillment. The right to express one’s thoughts and to communicate freely with others affirms the dignity and worth of each and every member of society, and allows each individual to realize his or her full human potential. Thus, freedom of expression is an end in itself — and as such, deserves society’s greatest protection.
It is vital to the attainment and advancement of knowledge, and the search for the truth. The eminent 19th-century writer and civil libertarian, John Stuart Mill, contended that enlightened judgment is possible only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one’s own conclusions against opposing views. Therefore, all points of view — even those that are “bad” or socially harmful — should be represented in society’s “marketplace of ideas.”
It is necessary to our system of self-government and gives the American people a “checking function” against government excess and corruption. If the American people are to be the masters of their fate and of their elected government, they must be well-informed and have access to all information, ideas and points of view. Mass ignorance is a breeding ground for oppression and tyranny.
Beginning in the 1980’s, religious fundamentalists and some parents’ groups have waged a persistent campaign to limit the variety of cultural messages available to American youth by attacking the content of some of the music industry’s creative products. These attacks have taken numerous forms, including a call by the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) for the labeling of recordings whose themes or imagery relate to sexuality, violence, drug or alcohol use, suicide or the “occult,” and prosecutions of record companies and store owners for producing or selling albums that contain controversial songs.
After years of pressure from the PMRC and a series of Senate hearings in 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced, in 1990, a uniform labeling system using the logo, “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics.” The RIAA initiated this system without providing record companies with any standards, criteria or guidelines for determining which albums should be labeled. That decision is left completely up to the companies, which have chosen to label only selected rock and rap albums and not recordings of country music, opera or musical comedy that may also contain controversial material.
Dissatisfied with the RIAA’s labels, many would-be censors have demanded even more limits on the sale of music with controversial lyrics. As a result, legislators have introduced bills in more than 20 states in recent years that would require warning labels far more detailed than the RIAA’s. Some proposed laws would go beyond mandatory labeling and actually ban the sale to minors of music deemed to be objectionable.
Until 1992, none of this legislation had passed, although in 1991 a bill in Louisiana failed by only one vote. In 1992, however, the state of Washington passed a law that required store owners to place “adults only” labels on recordings a judge had found to be “erotic”; the law also criminalized the sale of any labeled CD or tape to a person under age 18. Fortunately, the law was never enforced because a few months after passage a state court declared it unconstitutional.
Even though Washington’s “erotic music” law failed, the battle over proposals to label or otherwise restrict certain music sales will probably continue. The groups and individuals who have been attacking popular music want to impose their personal moral and political standards on the rest of us. The American Civil Liberties Union is working hard to prevent the achievement of that goal, which would imperil the First Amendment rights of musicians, and of all Americans, to create, perform and hear music of our own choosing.
In the late 1980’s, state prosecutors brought a criminal obscenity charge against the owner of a record store for selling an album by the rap group, 2 Live Crew. Although this was the first time that obscenity charges had ever been brought against song lyrics, the 2 Live Crew case focused the nation’s attention on an old question: should the government ever have the authority to dictate to its citizens what they may or may not listen to, read, or watch?
American society has always been deeply ambivalent about this question. On the one hand, our history is filled with examples of overt government censorship, from the 1873 Comstock Law to the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Anthony Comstock, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, boasted 194,000 “questionable pictures” and 134,000 pounds of books of “improper character” were destroyed under the Comstock Law — in the first year alone. The Communications Decency Act imposed an unconstitutional censorship scheme on the Internet, accurately described by a federal judge as “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed.”
On the other hand, the commitment to freedom of imagination and expression is deeply embedded in our national psyche, supported by the First Amendment, and supported by a long line of Supreme Court decisions.
Provocative and controversial art and in-your-face entertainment put our commitment to free speech to the test. Why should we oppose censorship when scenes of murder and mayhem dominate the TV screen, when works of art can be seen as a direct insult to peoples’ religious beliefs, and when much sexually explicit material can be seen as degrading to women? Why not let the majority’s morality and taste dictate what others can look at or listen to?
Today’s calls for censorship are not motivated solely by morality and taste, but also by the widespread belief that exposure to images of violence causes people to act in destructive ways. Pro-censorship forces, including many politicians, often cite a multitude of “scientific studies” that allegedly prove fictional violence leads to real-life violence. There is, in fact, virtually no evidence that fictional violence causes otherwise stable people to become violent. And if we suppressed material based on the actions of unstable people, no work of fiction or art would be safe from censorship. Serial killer Theodore Bundy collected cheerleading magazines. And the work most often cited by psychopaths as justification for their acts of violence is the Bible.
But what about the rest of us? Does exposure to media violence actually lead to criminal or anti-social conduct by otherwise stable people, including children, who spend an average of 28 hours watching television each week? These are important questions. If there really were a clear cause-and-effect relationship between what normal children see on TV and harmful actions, then limits on such expression might arguably be warranted.
Studies on the relationship between media violence and real violence are the subject of considerable debate. Children have been shown TV programs with violent episodes in a laboratory setting and then tested for “aggressive” behavior. Some of these studies suggest that watching TV violence may temporarily induce “object aggression” in some children (such as popping balloons or hitting dolls or playing sports more aggressively) but not actual criminal violence against another person.
CORRELATIONAL STUDIES that seek to explain why some aggressive people have a history of watching a lot of violent TV suffer from the chicken-and-egg dilemma: does violent TV cause such people to behave aggressively, or do aggressive people simply prefer more violent entertainment? There is no definitive answer. But all scientists agree that statistical correlations between two phenomena do not mean that one causes the other.
“There is no direct link between anti-social behavior and exposure to the content of any form of artistic expression that has ever been scientifically established. Moreover, scapegoating artistic expression as a cause of social ills is simplistic. If suppressing creative expression were the way to control anti-social behavior, where would you stop? The source of inspiration most frequently cited by criminal has been the Bible.” (Downs and McCoy, 1984.)
Throughout American history, popular music has mirrored the thoughts and yearning of young people. Performers from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin to Arrested Development and Madonna, have often celebrated change and challenged “the establishment.” Clearly, the real intentions of the would-be music censors is to impose on all Americans the tastes and values of political power-brokers who don’t connect with the experiences and concerns of the young, the alienated and minorities.
Lyric-labeling, directed almost exclusively at rock and rap music, impoverishes our culture by muzzling the voices of that music’s primarily young fans. Such suppression undermines the bedrock of our freedoms, the First Amendment, and it makes us all less free.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment’s protection of artistic expression very broadly. It extends not only to books, theatrical works and paintings, but also to posters, television, music videos and comic books — whatever the human creative impulse produces.
Two fundamental principles come into play whenever a court must decide a case involving freedom of expression. The first is “content neutrality”– the government cannot limit expression just because any listener, or even the majority of a community, is offended by its content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting, outrageous — or just plain bad.
The second principle is that expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest. The classic example is falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater and causing a stampede. Even then, the speech may be silenced or punished only if there is no other way to avert the harm.
The inevitable answer to our censorship predicament is simple, and timeless: a free society is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants — or does not want — to receive or create. Once you allow the government to censor someone else, you surrender to it the power to censor you, or something you like. Censorship is like poison gas: a powerful weapon that can harm you when the wind shifts. Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.
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