From Moral Issues that Divide Us

James Fieser


home: www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/160


Copyright 2008

Updated: 1/15/2011




1. Overview

2. Music Lyrics and Warning Labels: Pro and Contra — Dee Snider and Barbara P. Wyatt







Some years ago, a group called the Young British Artists put together a compilation of their works for a traveling exhibit called “Sensation”. The collection of conceptual art quickly drew large crowds at the European museums where they were displayed. Some pieces were rather odd, such as one titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, that had a 14 foot shark suspended in a glass case of formaldehyde. Another piece, titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, consisted of a small tent with the names of 102 people pasted on the inside. Other pieces were not just strange but outright shocking, and a sign posted outside London’s Royal Academy of Arts gave fair warning to visitors that “There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful.”

           When the exhibition was put on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City, public controversy erupted, especially over a painting by black British artist Chris Ofili titled The Holy Virgin Mary. The work was an abstract depiction of Mary as a black African, which, in and of itself was an attractive painting that could have been appropriate for display in some churches. It was the added artistic touches, though, that ignited outrage. Ofili placed two pieces of elephant dung on the painting, along with butterfly-looking cherubs floating around Mary that were actually photographs of naked black female buttocks and genitalia clipped from pornographic magazines. The point of the painting was to challenge black stereotypes, both within the sacred realm of religion where Mary is always portrayed as white, and in the secular world where the black female image has been ill-used in pornography and blaxploitation films.

           Outcry against Ofili’s painting and the entire exhibit was swift. Catholic leaders denounced it, and New York’s mayor Rudolph Giuliani stopped public funding to the Brooklyn Museum, commenting that "You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating someone else's religion." He also proclaimed “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!”  The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that “the Brooklyn Museum of Art should not receive Federal funds unless it closes its exhibit featuring works of a sacrilegious nature.” In spite of public opposition, the Brooklyn Museum continued displaying the exhibit for three months, protecting Ofili’s painting from vandalism with armed guards and a sheet of Plexiglas. In a subsequent law suit brought by the Museum, public funding was restored.

           The controversy surrounding Ofili’s painting illustrates an ongoing tension between free speech and censorship—a tension between the interest of people to openly express their views and the interest of others to suppress ideas that they find harmful or deeply offensive. Free speech, it would seem, is most valuable when it applies to the expression of unpopular ideas. British writer Oscar Wilde stated that “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Yet it also seems that there should be limits to how far free speech extends, and societies are entitled to protect their value systems from attack. In this chapter we will look at the conflict between free speech and censorship.



Free speech is a value that is universally held throughout the developed world today, and democratic societies see it as the hallmark of a free and open political system. With support as strong as it is for free speech, the burden of proof seems to rest on advocates of censorship to show why a particular idea should be suppressed. We’ll begin with a survey of the basic concepts used in this debate, and the main situations in which censorship has been imposed.



The issue of censorship rests on a number of interrelated concepts, foremost of which is free speech, a term that is used interchangeably with free expression. Central to the concept of free speech is that people have a legitimate expectation to articulate their ideas freely, without limitation or interference. While the form of expression can literally be verbally speaking what is on one’s mind, the terms “speech” and “expression” apply broadly to most any form of communication, including writing, bodily gestures, artistic creations, and photographic images. We usually think of free expression as pertaining to what we do during our non-working hours particularly in a public environment. Within private businesses or clubs and religious institutions, members agree to behavioral codes as a condition of participation. The organizations are within their rights to restrict expression, and members can pack up and leave if they don’t like it. During our own free time, though, we have a greater expectation of free speech in public arenas.

           Censorship is the suppression of free speech, often on the grounds that an act of expression harms or offends the public. Expressions are sometimes restricted because they are judged to be obscene, blasphemous, unpatriotic, seditious, or immoral. The term “censorship” usually applies to governmental restrictions in free speech in public places, such as a law that restricts displaying a Nazi flag, or a government official who shuts down a public art display. However, efforts to restrict free speech can also come from private groups, and these are best termed non-governmental challenges, rather than “censorship” in its governmental sense. For example, a publisher might cancel a book contract because the project has generated too much controversy. Opponents of a theatrical production might conduct media campaigns and boycotts against the financial backers of the production. These types of non-governmental challenges are legally permissible, but others break the law, such as if one political group steals campaign signs or vandalizes billboard advertisements by its rival political group. From the standpoint of free speech advocates, both governmental censorship and non-governmental challenges are unjustly intrusive and should not be practiced in a free society.

           The line between governmental censorship and non-governmental challenges is sometimes blurry, particularly when a private organization acts with some kind of implied governmental authority. This is the case with self-regulated censorship: a private organization sets rules that regulate free expression within a particular industry, in exchange for which the government agrees to not get involved. With any kind of self-regulation there is always a governmental threat lurking in the background. If industries cannot successfully regulate themselves, then the government will step in and address the problem with laws, monitoring, and penalties. In the words of one Senator during a hearing, “unless the industry cleans up their act . . . there is likely to be legislation” (Commerce Committee, Record Labeling, 1985). The best known example of this is the movie rating system that’s uniformly adopted in the film industry, as we will see in more detail below.

           One consequence of censorship and other challenges to free speech is that it creates an environment that intimidates people into constraining themselves, sometimes more than is even necessary. This is self-censorship: people consciously restricting their own expression out of fear of possible punishment. If I see that someone else has been taken to court or publicly ostracized because of a freely expressed view, I’ll be more inclined to play it safe and keep my mouth closed. The term chilling effect is used to describe the repressed atmosphere that censorship creates: it discourages the exercise of free expression in a way that makes us shiver with numbness.


Special Cases of Censorship

Today free speech is a liberty right that we take for granted until a special issue of censorship arises, which then gains widespread media coverage and sparks public debate. There are a few areas where censorship is a recurring issue, and we will highlight some of these. Perhaps the most prominent one is book censorship. More than any other type of media, books have become symbols of free expression. This is partly because books have the capacity of recording our thoughts on every possible subject, from the most innocent idea to the most scandalous. Book publication holds open the possibility of reaching a wider audience than we could in most other ways, such as through public speaking engagements or local television appearances. Historically controversial books have been rounded up by governments and enraged citizens, and even ceremonially burned in town squares. Here are just a sample of famous quotations denouncing book burning and what it represents:


·       “Every burned book enlightens the world.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

·       “What progress we are making.  In the Middle Ages they would have burned me.  Now they are content with burning my books.”—Sigmund Freud

·       "We all know that books burn, yet we have the greater knowledge that books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt

·       “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” —Heinrich Hein

·       “The paper burns, but the words fly away.”—Akiba ben Joseph

·       Books won't stay banned.  They won't burn.  Ideas won't go to jail.  In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost.  The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.—Alfred Whitney Griswold


While the days of government-conducted book burning are long gone in the developed world, it is still an activity performed by private political and religious groups in protest of publications that they believe are harmful. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Ring books have been recent victims of this by churches in South Carolina and New Mexico.

           One area where book censorship continually draws attention today is with libraries in public schools. Under pressure from parents and community groups, many school boards have mandated the removal of certain books from their libraries, and among these in recent decades are classics such as William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Part of the motivation for school library censorship is to keep material from students that is not appropriate for their maturity level. Sometimes, though, the motivation is to prevent children from being exposed to material that challenges the value system of some parents or local community groups. Critics of library censorship argue that school libraries create opportunities for students to explore new ideas and, considering how diverse student bodies are, libraries need to include a wide range of books. It should be left to a student’s parents or teachers to direct them towards some books or away from others, but the options should still be there for patrons to make that choice.

           A second special area of censorship focuses on hate speech, which is a type of public expression that attacks, insults and intimidates people on the basis of some distinguishing feature, such as their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or physical appearance. Common examples are asserting the inferiority of a particular race, displaying a Nazi flag, shouting an anti-gay slogan, or desecrating a religious symbol. Expressions like these risk promoting discrimination towards the affected groups, and sometimes even result in violence towards them. Because of the harm that hate speech can inflict on the targeted groups, the question arises about whether it should be restricted, and, in point of fact, most developed countries have enacted laws to that effect, including Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and India. The United States almost uniquely stands alone in allowing such expressions as a matter of free speech.

           A third area of censorship concerns limitations on creative expression in film and music. For almost 40 years the U.S. film industry was governed by the Motion Picture Production Code, which banned nudity, drug use, religious ridicule, disrespect for the law, and other depictions in films that would have the effect of lowering society’s moral standards. Romantic scenes were heavily scrutinized to uphold “the sanctity of the institution of marriage” and “excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.” The Production Code was an effort at self-regulation by the motion picture industry, and technically speaking was not the instrument of any governmental agency. However, virtually all film distribution companies complied with the code and, consequently, filmmakers who wanted their films released were compelled to follow it. In 1966 the standards of the production code were relaxed, and two years later it was replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system, which, in modified form, we follow today. The rating system is also self-regulated without direct government involvement. Participation in the rating scheme is voluntary, and, in theory, filmmakers can opt out by not submitting their films for rating and accept an NR (not rated) designation. But by taking NR rating, a film will have less theatrical distribution and will attract fewer viewers to movie houses. Thus, for mainstream films, participation in the rating system is a practical necessity.

           In 1985, the wives of several U.S. Senators formed an organization called the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) and lobbied Congress to help impose a rating system on music lyrics that paralleled that in the film industry. The group recommended the ratings of D/A for drugs and alcohol, V for violence, O for occult, and X for explicit lyrics. Under pressure from the PMRC and Congress, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) eventually instituted a system of placing parental advisory labels on albums that contain explicit lyrics. According to the RIAA, “In most decisions, the decision that a particular sound recording should receive a PAL [i.e., Parental Advisory Label] Notice is made by each record company in conjunction with the artist.” As with movie ratings, parental advisory labels impact sales; for example, Walmart—the leading album outlet in the U.S.—will not carry albums that have the label.

           A fourth area where free expression has routinely been restricted is with the visual arts—drawing, painting, sculpture. By its very nature, visual art is a creative outlet of individual expression through which artists often offer critiques of contemporary society. Censorship of art occurs when a work is attacked or suppressed because of its controversial message, independently of its artistic merits. There’s nothing wrong with people criticizing, disliking or taking offense at a particular work of art, and with controversial pieces that is expected. The problem occurs when a government or group of people go a step further and challenge the artist’s right to exhibit his work and try to prevent it from being displayed. The most dramatic example of this in recent years involved the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as discussed above.

           A fifth recurring issue of censorship is flag desecration. No other object or image symbolizes a country more than its flag. While a country’s governments may come and go – good ones and bad ones – the flag usually stays the same, indicating that it represents a bond within a country’s culture and values that rises above the policies of a given government. While flag burners are often protesting against a particular governmental policy, such as an unpopular war or a violation of civil rights, the act of flag burning represents a broader contempt for the country itself. For that reason it is especially attention-getting and shocking. There are many non-traditional uses of national flags, such as using their designs for underwear, bed sheets, jewelry, but none of these uses display the overt contempt that flag burning does. Part of it is the violent nature of fire itself, and how it has been used over the centuries to intentionally torture and kill people, and destroy cities. Even countries with lenient policies about expressions of political protest may sometimes draw the line at flag burning.

           A sixth area of censorship involves speech codes, particularly in school settings. Educational institutions have historically seen the free exchange of ideas as an integral part of the learning process, whereby students can vigorously debate even the most sensitive topics. Many school administrations, both at the K-12 and university levels, have enacted speech codes that restrict certain kinds of expression, particularly hate speech. An example would be a policy that explicitly prohibits insulting, teasing, or making inappropriate jokes about groups based on race, gender, or religion. The intent of these codes is to foster an atmosphere of tolerance and respect towards others, and to protect members of these groups from harassment and a hostile learning environment. While generally speaking these aims are noble, a main problem is that the codes are often vague and potentially lump together acts of overt harassment with those that may be only mildly inappropriate. An organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) monitors speech codes at universities throughout the U.S., and publishes lists of the worst offenders.

           A seventh recently emerging area of censorship concerns the internet and what is commonly called internet neutrality. The central idea is that individual users should be in control of the content and applications that they use on the internet; their use should not be restricted by local internet suppliers, such as cable television companies that might want to restrict access and content for their own financial gain. For example, one internet provider might try to restrict users from accessing the website of a rival internet provider. An internet provider might also allow faster internet access to some web sites, such as those of television networks who pay them fees; this will create a disadvantage for smaller websites that cannot afford those costs. The type of censorship involved here is motivated more by economic considerations, rather than by any harm or offence that the web pages themselves might produce. Still, what is at stake is the ability of all internet users to both create their own internet content and receive content from others in an open playing field. Interest in internet neutrality derives from the unique nature of the internet itself: since its inception it has allowed equal access and participation, without a regulatory body restricting its content. Traditional media outlets—newspapers, book publishers and television stations—all have stringent editorial policies that restrict their content based on space limitations, potential interest, controversy, ideology, and countless other factors. The internet is virtually the only major media outlet that doesn’t require going through such editorial scrutiny. Regardless of your viewpoint, you can create your own website to express your ideas. Free speech isn’t about your ability to say what you want in the privacy of your own home: it’s about your right to have an audience. And, perhaps for the first time in the history of the world, the internet has given everyone a potential audience for any expressed idea whatsoever. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states it best: “The Internet has become the 21st century’s marketplace of ideas. . . . Net Neutrality has made the Internet the most democratic forum for free speech in the world” (www.aclu.org). Defenders of internet neutrality, like the ACLU, want to preserve this freedom from restriction, regardless of whether these restrictions are motivated by money, rather than by a dislike for the ideas themselves. Censorship is still censorship.


What People Think

The surveys below indicate public opinion on several free speech and censorship issues, and the results are mixed, with no clear pattern of how people view government censorship as a whole. The responses depend on the particular issue in question, such as national security or offensive material in the entertainment industry.


"Which is more important to you—that the government be able to censor news stories it feels threaten national security OR that the news media be able to report stories they feel are in the national interest?"

                                            2/1-5/2006      3/1991

Gov't Able To Censor:           34%               58%

News Media Able to Report: 56%               32%

Both Equal (vol.):                 5%                 5%

Unsure:                                5%                 5%


"In presenting material that some view as objectionable or offensive, do you think the entertainment industry is within its constitutional rights of free speech or do you think the industry has gone beyond constitutional guarantees of free speech?" (3/17-21/05)

Within Its Rights: 46%

Beyond Guarantees of Free Speech: 48%

Unsure: 6%


"Do you think the government should permit continued anti-war protests in this country under the free speech guarantees of the Constitution, OR that they should ban protests in order to support the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan?" (Oct. 11-12, 2001)

Permit: 71%

Ban: 23%

Don't know: 6%


 “As you may know, the first amendment to the Constitution gives all Americans the right to free speech. Do you think the first amendment also gives Americans the right to contribute as much money as they want to political parties and candidates, or don't you think so?” (9/03)

Does Give That Right: 40%

Don't Think So: 52%

Not Sure: 8%



The tension between free expression and censorship has probably existed since the very first original thinkers came in conflict with the very first governments. The issue has been of special interest to philosophers over the centuries, in part because these writers themselves often put forward controversial ideas that governments or church officials find harmful. Some philosophers have had their works censored, and many others have adopted practices of self-censorship out of fear of being arrested for their views. Philosophical discussions about free expression and censorship come down to an assessment of the values that society finds most important. Some of our most cherished values support the idea of free speech, such as those of democracy, truth, and personal autonomy. Other equally important values incline towards censorship, particularly the values of protecting one’s children, protecting society, and protecting oneself from offensive material. We will look at the main arguments regarding free speech and censorship that draw on these various values.


The Case for Free Speech

The first philosophical justification of free speech is that free speech is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic government. An environment of open debate and dialogue will give lawmakers the opportunity to critically examine possible public policies of every variety. Democracy involves a wide spectrum of opinions about what is best for society, and it is impossible for law makers to act on them all. Some ideas are so bad that we wouldn’t want them to become public policies. Free speech allows people to sift through this overabundance of ideas and find the gems. The concept of free speech was at the heart of civilizations first democracy, that in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. For around 200 years, Athenians developed a sophisticated system of democratic rule where around 50,000 male citizens participated directly in the city’s governing Assembly when the so chose. During the Assembly meetings, citizens were entitled to speak frankly and freely as part of the democratic process. The Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BCE) describes the connection between democracy and speaking frankly:


This is true liberty, when free-born men,

Having to advise the public, may speak free,

Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise;

Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace:

What can be juster in a state than this? [Suppliants, 438-442]


The Greek tolerance for free speech was largely confined to the political process and did not extend to ordinary public discourse, and the philosopher Socrates (469–399 BCE) is a case in point. Over the years he routinely pushed the boundaries of free speech, and ultimately paid for it with his life. He was arrested and charged with teaching ideas that were atheistic and corrupting to the youth, and at his trial Socrates had to explain why he didn’t just mind his own business. His answer was that "I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” That is, Socrates felt that his persistent inquiries were important for the moral development of the city, and that was his higher calling that he couldn’t resist.

           When the Greek experiment with democracy ended, it would be nearly 2,000 years before democracy took hold in the modern world, and with it came the same conviction that free speech was essential to the democratic political process. British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) wrote that anyone “who takes away the freedom [of legislative debate], or hinders the acting of the legislative in its due seasons, in effect takes away the legislative, and puts an end to the government” (Second Treatise, 215). While Locke too was talking about the freedom of open legislative debate, particularly in the British Parliament, his point is now appreciated more broadly: free speech within society as a whole is essential for preserving a democracy. Even outside of political assemblies, a vigorous exchange of views is necessary for evaluating ideas that could become law through the democratic process.

           The second justification for free speech is that it is essential in society’s search for truth, completely apart from its role in democracy. Imagine a primitive village that for centuries has gotten its water by hauling it in buckets from a stream a mile away. Someone then comes up with the idea of diverting the stream to bring it closer to the village, but the community elders silence him since the implementation of his idea would disrupt the village’s longstanding tradition. The elders might even see the practical benefit of diverting the stream, but feel that doing so would change the daily rituals of the community, and possibly create discord among the villagers. We could imagine similar scenarios where leaders suppress new ideas about agricultural production, medicine, or building construction, all of which would hinder any advance in scientific knowledge. Imagine further a scenario where village leaders suppress new ideas about property ownership, redistribution of wealth, compulsory education, religious beliefs, gender roles, punishment for lawbreakers. Not all of these new ideas will be necessarily good ones, but by blocking the very discussion of new concepts the society will remain as repressed socially as it would be scientifically. In this sense, free speech is a requirement in the search for truth—both scientifically and socially.

           One of the first proponents of this argument in recent centuries was British writer John Milton (1608–1674) who said “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making” (Areopagitica). According to Milton, when new ideas are expressed, we can count on there being argumentation and debate, but this is exactly what is needed for pushing the boundaries of knowledge and discovering new truths. New ideas must be put forward, scrutinized from all angles, tested against competing ideas, and in all likelihood the winner brings us closer to truth than we had been before. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argued further that even if everyone in the world agreed on a specific issue with only a single lonely voice of dissent, we should not silence that person. To do so would cripple any effort to test the majority opinion, thereby robbing the human race of the chance to further truth. Mill writes,


If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [On Liberty, 2]


Thus, according to Mill, even a wrong idea will benefit us in the quest for truth since by proving it wrong we will better confirm the truths that we already hold.

           In more recent times the link between free speech and the pursuit of truth has been called the free marketplace of ideas, drawing on the notion of “free market” in economic theory. Imagine that you and I own competing companies that manufacture lawnmowers, and each of us hopes to win out over the other in the market place. I’ll continually improve my lawnmower features in an effort to make them better than yours and thereby get more consumer sales. You’ll, of course, do the same thing. Through this healthy competition, each of our products will improve, and eventually one of us may emerge as the winner, while the other goes out of business. Something similar happens with the development of ideas in a marketplace of free expression. I put forward my ideas of politics, religion, or morality, and you put forward your competing ideas. We debate and refine our ideas until one emerges as the victor that society accepts. In the words of one Supreme Court justice, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” (Abrams v. United States, 1919). This doesn’t guarantee that the view accepted by society is the final truth of the matter, but in a free marketplace of ideas the dialogue will always continue and we may get progressively closer to the truth with new rounds of debate.

           The third justification for free speech is that it is an essential element of our personal autonomy. We are by nature both creative thinkers and active communicators, and the line is thin that separates what we think from what we say. Both of these are essential to our human identity. Imagine that government scientists invented a chemical that, when put into the nation’s water supply, would affect people’s brains and prevent them from creative and critical thinking. We’d certainly see this as an intrusion upon our personal identities and even our fundamental humanness. We’d be more like docile drones than full-fledged human beings. To be fully human, we need freedom of thought. This same reasoning applies not only to freedom of thought, but freedom of speech as well. Part of what it means to be a fully developed human is to have the liberty to express our thoughts through words and actions. By suppressing our opportunities for self-expression, we are forced to behave like docile drones, while at the same time our inner thoughts struggle to be unchained. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) makes this point here:


since every man is by indefeasible natural right the master of his own thoughts, it follows that men thinking in diverse and contradictory fashions, cannot, without disastrous results, be compelled to speak only according to the dictates of the supreme [governmental] power. Not even the most experienced, to say nothing of the multitude, know how to keep silence. [A Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), 4.20]


According to Spinoza, the government’s role “is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets” (ibid), but instead to allow us to develop our identities and use our reason unshackled.


The Case for Censorship

Censorship by its very nature is repressive—telling people that they can’t express their opinions—and consequently there aren’t many thinkers who stand out as proud advocates of it. The Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE) is an exception, and an unusual one at that. As a student of Socrates, Plato embraced his teacher’s method of confrontational dialogue, and, in fact, most of what we know about Socrates’ life and teachings is sympathetically conveyed to us through Plato’s writings. It seems odd, then, that a loyal devotee of Socrates would defend censorship of any kind. However, what Plato has in mind is a narrow set of circumstances in which society might benefit from certain types of restrictions, namely, censorship that would enhance the education of privileged youth who will grow up to be leaders and protectors of society. Also, Plato has in mind the censorship of ideas that are uncritically imposed on the youth, through a type of media brainwashing. It’s different if ideas are examined through critical dialogue as Socrates did, and, in fact, Plato believes that this is the only way to achieve true knowledge. But critical dialogue is not the norm in society, and, for Plato, we must censor harmful media that amounts to mere brainwashing. Even though Plato’s actual view of censorship is rather narrow, we still can apply his position more broadly to society at large, and, so, we will look at two of his arguments.

           His first argument is that censorship is justified because it prevents the harmful influence of ideas that might morally corrupt our children. We have a special obligation to educate our young with ideas that will instill within them the best moral qualities. If we expose them to stories, songs, images and other media that are morally uplifting, then their moral characters will be positively shaped. But, if the ideas they receive are morally corrupting, then their moral characters will be damaged. As the modern saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”. When we think of media today that might morally harm children, what usually comes to mind are television shows, video games, and song lyrics that promote violence, sexual promiscuity, drug use, or disrespect for authority. Plato might agree with these, but he goes much further and suggests that there are morally corrupt messages even within religious scriptures that need to be censored to protect children. He specifically targets religious stories by the Greek classic writers Homer and Hesiod, who depict the Gods as ruthlessly quarreling and warring with each other. Maybe these have some higher symbolic meaning, but a child will never see it that way and assume instead that bitter fighting is acceptable behavior. Plato writes,


These tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. [The Republic, Book 3]


In Plato’s day, the writings of Homer and Hesiod were considered sacred, and an equivalent in our own day might be the suggestion that we need to censor Old Testament stories that depict God as angry and vengeful. For Plato, it doesn’t matter whether the source of ideas is secular or religious: if the ideas are morally harmful, they should be suppressed.

           Plato’s second argument for censorship is that it is needed for the protection of our society. He argues that there is a specific reason that we need to censor potentially corrupting material from the youth, and that is because when they grow up the survival of the country will depend upon them. This is especially so for our leaders who are responsible for setting the country’s direction and mediating the competing desires of the citizens. Think of what the worst political leaders are like: they’re dishonest, power hungry, greedy, and driven by personal interests more than by what’s good for the nation. They become embroiled in sex, bribery, and corruption scandals, and refuse to voluntarily step down from office even when public opposition to them is overwhelming. Something went wrong with these leaders long before they took office, and, for Plato, it’s that they were corrupted in their youth, perhaps by reading stories in Homer which romanticize the self-serving battles that the gods waged against each other, as each tried to subdue his or her rival. Our leaders need to have their characters shaped by a search for what is good, just and true—and not by messages in the media that glorify selfish desire.

           When translating Plato’s message into our contemporary democratic environment, he is saying that a successful democracy depends upon citizens choosing to do what is morally right for society, and not succumbing to their worst selfish desires. Society can advance that goal by censoring material that glorifies our basest drives. This is precisely the goal established by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which regulated film censorship for three decades:


If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind. . . . [Film producers] know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.


Plato would likely agree with this, as well as the following three general principles of the Motion Picture Production Code:


1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.


For Plato, censorship is there for the survival of society. We are surrounded by hostile countries that would like nothing better than to attack us and destroy our way of life. We need to take seriously the critical role that high moral standards play in holding a nation together and keeping it strong, and sometimes this involves censoring ideas that undermine those standards.

           There is yet a third major argument for censorship that Plato himself did not suggest, but is nonetheless as prevalent today as his two arguments above. It is that censorship is justified because it protects us from offense. Flag burning offends, and so too do hate speech, pornography, and desecration of religious symbols, and for that reason these expressions should be suppressed. Even if they don’t morally corrupt children or put our society at risk, the fact that they cause offence in and of itself is a justification for their censorship. On the surface, this argument for censorship has an appeal: there are things that offend each one of us and we would prefer that those things never surface to begin with. There is a major problem with this argument, though. We can’t simply apply a simple formula like “if an idea offends, then its censorship is justifiable”: there are varying degrees of offense, and different people find different things offensive. It’s not reasonable to censor an idea merely on the grounds that it offends a select group of religious leaders, for example. We need some standard by which to distinguish those differences if the notion of offence can play any meaningful role at all in the free speech and censorship debate. American philosopher Joel Feinberg (1926-2004) offered such a test for identifying offensive expressions that might be worthy of censorship, and there are four relevant conditions to that test.

           First, we must take into account the magnitude of the offense: the offense must be a serious one, and not just a trivial nuisance. An offense has a greater magnitude when it is more intense, lasts a longer time, and affects a wider range of people. Flag burning, for example, would have a much greater magnitude of offensiveness than would someone simply wearing a T-shirt with a four letter word on it. Second, for an offense to warrant censorship it must also be one that is difficult to avoid. We can avoid offensive messages on T-shirts, bumper stickers, or protest signs by averting our eyes or walking on the other side of the street. The more difficult it is to avoid the message, the greater the problem. With flag burning, for example, we don’t actually need to see someone set the flag on fire. Merely knowing about it from the news media or casual conversation is enough to trigger a negative reaction, and it is not reasonable for society to expect us to shelter ourselves from all interaction with others, merely to filter out a potentially offensive expression. Third, to be worthy of censorship, exposure to the offense cannot have been something that I voluntarily brought on myself. For example, I cannot voluntarily walk into an art museum and then protest that a work like Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary should be censored since it offends me. Since I knowingly put myself in that situation, I’ve no one to blame but myself if I’m offended. Fourth, we must also pay less regard to the reactions of people who are abnormally susceptible to offense. Some people are more inclined to have offensive reactions than others, perhaps because they’re psychologically more sensitive, or they have sheltered lives, or they’re part of a special subculture, or they are used to getting their own way. For whatever reason, people who are unusually predisposed to offensive reactions should not determine the rules for what society at large censors.

           According to Feingberg, then, for an expression to be worthy of censorship, it must pass all four of these conditions. But, in a society like ours with a wide variety of cultures and belief systems, it will be difficult to find many offensive expressions that can meet all four conditions. Take Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary: yes it probably passed the second and third conditions since many people were unavoidably offended by it, without having to witness it first hand—either voluntarily or involuntarily. However, it probably failed the first and fourth conditions. The magnitude of the offense was likely limited to members of religious groups who especially revere Mary, such as conservative Catholics. Also, the most extreme reactions were voiced by—or influenced by—conservative religious leaders who, by their very job descriptions, are often abnormally susceptible to offense. In a more Catholic-dominated country, such as Ireland or Italy, it is likely that all four criteria of offense would have been met to justify censoring Ofili’s painting. Not so in the U.S.



Laws defending free speech were virtually nonexistent until modern times, and it is perhaps only within the past century that they’ve come to resemble the robust system that we know today. We’ve seen that for a short time ancient Athenians permitted a type of free speech that was restricted to their legislative assembly. But the Hellenistic, Roman and medieval empires that followed routinely censored publications that, on their judgments, undermined the ideological values and cohesiveness of their domains. The writings from the ancient world that have come down to us represent only a fraction of the total literary output of their time, and the survivors are those which, for the most part, passed the censors’ scrutiny. It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that a handful of European countries set the groundwork for legally protected free speech.


Legally Protected Free Speech

The story of legal protection of free speech in the English-speaking world begins in 17th-century Great Britain, with a book censorship law called The Licensing Order of 1643, which formalized a set of publishing restrictions that England had already been under for some time. The aim of the Licensing Order was to suppress “the great late abuses and frequent disorders in printing many, false forged, scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed papers, pamphlets, and books to the great defamation of religion and government.” But Britain had reached a point in its social development where these restrictions were becoming increasingly unpopular. The invention of the printing press, coupled with a growing middle class of educated readers, created a unique opportunity for circulating new ideas. Milton’s defense of free speech discussed above specifically targeted the Licensing Order. A few decades later Britain’s Parliament enacted the English Bill of Rights (1689), which, among other liberties, granted that “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.” As with the ancient Athenians, this only extended free speech to legislative debate, not to ordinary public discourse. But a few years later the restrictive Licensing Order of 1643 expired, and was not further renewed. While this still did not legally guarantee free speech, it removed the most oppressive restrictions, and British authors took advantage of the more lax publishing environment.

           Until the American Revolution in 1776, free speech in the American colonies was regulated by British law, which was evolving to allow for greater liberty of public expression. Nevertheless, prior to the American Revolution, the only type of speech that had full legal protection was that within the context of legislative debate. Today in the U.S. we see free speech in all of its varieties as something that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But this broad notion of Constitutionally secured free speech was long in the making, and the result of comparatively recent Supreme Court decisions that clarified the scope of the First Amendment to the Constitution. As part of the Bill of Rights, originally ratified by Congress in 1791, the First Amendment states,


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


The original intention here was that the U.S. Congress itself would not restrict the above forms of expression, but that individual states could if they chose to do so. For example, Massachusetts might adopt only a few censorship laws while Georgia might adopt many. The First Amendment was a concession to the rights of states to create their own laws, independently of the federal government. Thus, as originally understood, the First Amendment did not protect citizens against censorship from states. It was the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, that limited states’ rights in a variety of areas, as expressed here in a portion of the Amendment known as the “due process” clause:


No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


The Fourteenth Amendment does not explicitly use the phrase “free speech”, but only that of “liberty.” Eventually, though, the 1931 Supreme Court case Stromberg v. California established that all of the rights listed in the First Amendment are incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment notion of “liberty,” including that of free speech. It was only then that free speech became a Constitutionally protected right of all U.S. citizens, regardless of the state in which they live.

           Each country has its own history of legally protected free speech, but in 1948 the United Nations forced the issue with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the following:


Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Article 19]


The Universal Declaration was originally devised as a statement of objectives towards which governments should strive, and, technically speaking, it is not a legally binding international law. However, it is an international statement of standards that is theoretically acknowledged by all members of the United Nations, which today include virtually every country on earth.  Whether a given country lives up to this ideal standard of free speech established by the United Nations is another question, and many of the most oppressive regimes today are far from it. But the ideals set forth in the document are often used as a standard by which the United Nations and other human rights organizations can condemn the conduct of offending governments.


Legal Limitations of Free Speech

Even in a country like the U.S. that values free speech, not every expressed idea is legally protected, and since the 1920s the U.S. Supreme Court has clarified the Constitutional limits of free speech. While there is no master list of exceptions to free speech, the critical ones include expressions that (1) pose a clear and present danger of imminent violence or lawlessness, (2) threaten national security, (3) constitute fighting words that inflict injury, (4) maliciously defame someone’s character through false facts, or (5) are obscene as judged by community standards. We’ll look at each of these.

           The cornerstone of many legal restrictions on free speech is the clear and present danger doctrine, which allows governments to prohibit expressions that cause danger to public peace, the classic example of which is someone causing panic by shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. This doctrine was articulated in a Supreme Court case involving a socialist politician named Charles Schenck who during World War I distributed pamphlets urging people to dodge the draft. The Court upheld his conviction and stated that “the question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent" (Schenck v. United States, 1919). Later court decisions clarified the clear and present danger doctrine to prevent it from applying too broadly. One ruling introduced what is sometimes called the “time to answer” test: a particular expression cannot be considered a clear and present danger if there is full opportunity to discuss the merits of the idea. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression” (Whitney v. California, 1927). The point is that it is hard to see an expression as an immediate danger if there is time to sit down with the person and debate with him about his idea. A more recent ruling introduced the imminent lawless action test whereby governments can restrict an expression that produces “imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969). The criterion here of “imminent lawless action” is a little more precise than that of “clear and present danger,” but the central point is the same: expressions that threaten immediate harm may be censored.

           The Supreme Court’s view on free speech and national security was formulated in a case involving Benjamin Gitlow, a prominent communist politician, who was convicted in New York for anarchy because he published a pamphlet that called for violent revolution. Even though the pamphlet was written in Yiddish, not English, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction stating that “Such utterances, by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the State. They threaten breaches of the peace, and ultimate revolution. . . . A single revolutionary spark may kindle a fire that, smouldering for a time, may burst into a sweeping and destructive conflagration” (Gitlow v. New York, 1925). According to this ruling, legislative bodies, like that of New York State, are permitted to enact laws that punish offenders for expressions that aim to unlawfully overthrow the government. However, the Court recognized that there are no grounds for restricting the “utterance or publication of abstract doctrine or academic theory having no propensity to incite concrete action.” The speech must urge a course of action that threatens the government, which, the Court believed, Gitlow did.

           The fighting words doctrine was established in a Supreme Court case involving a Jehovah’s Witness proselytizer named Walter Chaplinsky. When preaching and passing out pamphlets on a street in Rochester, New Hampshire, the crowd around him began to block traffic, and a police officer attempted to bring him to the police station. Chaplinsky responded by saying to the police officer “You are a god-damned racketeer, and a damned fascist and the whole government of Rochester are Fascists or agents of fascism.” He was subsequently convicted of violating a state law against abusive language in public. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction stating the following:


There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. [Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1941)]


While the fighting words doctrine is still Constitutionally valid, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to apply it to specific cases, even on an issue as confrontational as flag burning. In a recent flag burning case, the Court overturned a conviction stating that "if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable" (Texas v. Johnson, 1989). The court has also overturned convictions on cross burning, and a case where a man wore a jacket with the words “F*** the Draft” inside a city courthouse.

           Defamation is a type of expression that harms a person’s reputation, typically when uttered with full knowledge of its falsehood. Libel is when the defamation is in published form, and slander is when it is merely spoken. U.S. laws against defamation trace back to British laws during colonial American times, and for much of U.S. history it was assumed that defamation was not Constitutionally protected speech through the First or Fourteenth Amendments. Thus, states enacted various laws against libel and slander. But a 1964 Supreme Court case established what is called the public figure doctrine, according to which the standards against defaming a public person are more lax than those pertaining to an ordinary person. In this case, the New York Times published an attack advertisement against the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama for civil rights infringements committed by that city’s police. Some of the statements were inaccurate and Sullivan won a law suit against the Times. Upon appeal, though, the Supreme Court overturned Sullivan’s victory on the grounds that requiring 100% accuracy in debates over public issues would too severely restrict free speech and lead to journalistic self-censorship:


[We recognize that] erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and that it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the "breathing space" that they "need . . . to survive" . . . . A rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions—and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount—leads to a comparable "self-censorship." [New York Times v. Sullivan]


What matters is whether an attack on a public official is made with reckless disregard for the truth, and the Times did not to that. While this case specifically involved defamation of a public official, the reasoning was later extended to other public figures who have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved” (Gertz v. Robert Welch, 1974). Political activists, movie stars, editorial writers, and bloggers routinely present their views before the public on controversial issues. In doing so, they voluntarily make themselves targets of attack and are in essence like public figures.

           While the public figure doctrine is a testament to the U.S. commitment to free speech, it has also placed many American authors at risk for what is called libel tourism—that is, suing an American author for libel in a foreign country that has weak free speech laws. The United Kingdom is such a country, and London has become the libel tourism capital of the world. A famous example is American author Rachel Ehrenfeld who was sued by a Saudi billionaire banker for exposing his connections with terrorist funding. Ehrenfeld’s book in question, titled Funding Evil (2003), was published in the U.S., but 23 copies were sold in the U.K. through Amazon.com, and a sample chapter was accessible online internationally. That was sufficient for the Saudi banker to bring defamation charges against Ehrenfeld in the U.K. She did not appear in court to defend herself, and a summary judgment against her awarded the banker $225,000 in damages, and ordered her to apologize and destroy remaining copies of her book. Ehrenfeld’s case led Congress to pass the Free Speech Act of 2010, which makes foreign libel judgments unenforceable in the United States unless they conform to U.S. standards of free speech.

           Obscenity is the legal term for what we more commonly call pornography. For a couple decades the Supreme Court debated over whether obscene material was Constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, or whether state and local governments could prosecute distributors of pornography. The issue was settled in the 1973 Supreme Court case involving a man named Marvin Miller who ran a mail order business and was convicted in California for distributing adult material. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction and ruled that obscenity is not Constitutionally protected. However, they argued, state and local governments must apply a strict test to determine whether the erotic material in question counts as “obscene”. The test has three parts:


(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest [i.e., sexual desires],

(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and

(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. [Miller v. California]


The test aims to identify erotic material whose primary aim or effect is to cause sexual arousal in its audience, with no redeeming social value; such material then might be judged obscene and thereby prohibited by a local government. A central component of the test is that local communities can determine for themselves, based on their own community standards, whether a particular work has sexual arousal as its primary aim or effect: there does not need to be any national standard. According to the Court’s decision, “our Nation is simply too big and too diverse for this Court to reasonably expect that such standards could be articulated for all 50 States in a single formulation” (ibid).



With some moral issues, the conservative and liberal positions are clearly defined. For example, the conservative view on abortion favors having more restrictions on abortion procedures, and the liberal view favors having fewer restrictions. With the issue of free speech and censorship, though, the conservative and liberal positions are sometimes skewed. Both sides agree that free speech is an important right, and that censorship should only be done in very compelling situations. They differ, though, with their assessments of which situations are compelling. For example, conservative groups today tend to prefer the censoring of flag burning, but not censoring hate speech; liberal groups tend towards the opposite of both of these. Nevertheless, if we consider the free speech and censorship debate as part of a several hundred year contest, apart from popular trends today, a more consistent pattern emerges. Thus, it is in this larger historical context that we need to understand the terms “conservative” and “liberal” as used below.


The Conservative Position

The conservative view on the issue of censorship is that free speech can be abused when it undermines traditional values and social stability, and in some cases censorship is justifiable. The main arguments for the conservative position are these:

           1. Protecting children: Censorship shelters children from ideas that may damage their moral development. One of the oldest and most universal human values is that of parents educating their children. We do this as a matter of instinct as well as from a sense of moral obligation. The guiding rule of all parenting is to do what is best for one’s children, and we recognize that parents have great latitude in determining for themselves what is best. Parents shape not only the education, careers and hobbies of their offspring, but, more importantly, their moral, political and religious views. When the free speech of others runs wild, this intrudes on parents’ abilities to morally educate their children. The most intrusive and harmful expressions of others may justifiably be censored. A criticism of this argument is that too often the claim to protect our children is used as an excuse to impose one’s value system on all of society. Yes, we have a right and responsibility to see to the moral development of our children, but this should not hijack something as important as free speech. Parents can effectively protect their children from harmful ideas without censoring the expression of views that are of interest to adults.

           2. Governmental stability: Censorship helps stabilize society by preventing the erosion of governmental authority. All of the freedoms that we have and the activities that we engage in are only possible because we have a stable government and a stable society. Without this stability we would lapse into a state of nature where our lives would be, as Thomas Hobbes says, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 13). It is easy for us to take governmental and social stability for granted, and assume that it will always be that way. But even a cursory look at history will show that the risks of social upheaval are much greater than we think. Some threats to governmental stability can’t be anticipated or prevented, such as attacks from hostile countries. But the threats that we bring on ourselves through socially destabilizing speech is another matter. We can foresee and stop these, especially the worst kinds. A criticism of this argument is that censorship in the name of governmental stability can easily lead to governmental tyranny. By censoring free expression, particularly the type that is critical of the government itself, the government puts itself in a position where it can do what it wants without hindrance of public opposition. Free speech is an important check and balance against a government that extends its authority too far.

           3. Traditional values and Offense: The most offensive expressions are those that attack traditional values, and censorship protects those values from attack. Every society has a bedrock of values—core beliefs and moral codes that regulate how we behave and interact with each other. We internalize basic values, they become an integral part of our identities, and an attack on one of these values quickly translates into an attack on us personally. While there may always be room for critique of traditional values, the time-honored place that they hold within society demands that such critiques be done diplomatically. The most harmful and offensive ones should be censored. A criticism of this argument is that sometimes it takes harsh and even offensive expressions to make society re-examine their most ingrained traditional values. Traditional values during the Middle Ages included a rigid class distinction between wealthy aristocrats and impoverished peasants. It forced adherence to a single religious institution under penalty of torture and death. Even today, not all traditional ideas are good ones, and sometimes it takes dramatic expressions of ideas to shake people from their entrenched views to even consider alternatives. This will inevitably cause offense, but it is an offense that has justification.


The Liberal Position

The liberal view on the issue of censorship is that free speech should be permitted even when it attacks traditional values, and in few cases is censorship justifiable. The main arguments for the liberal position are these:

           1. Democracy: Censorship is damaging to the democratic process since, by silencing some ideas, it thereby favors others. Often the favored ideas are defended by those who have the most money or power to advance their views; their ideas, then are perpetuated at the expense of society’s most underprivileged people. Censorship is then an act of intolerance towards those whose voices need to be heard the most. The result is oligarchy—rule by a small elite group—and not democracy. For democracy to function properly, we need an environment in which the broadest range of ideas can be freely expressed and debated. A criticism of this argument is that the expression of some ideas are irrelevant to the democratic process, particularly ideas that are most harmful or offensive. The machinery of democracy will continue running just fine even if pornography and hate speech are censored. Democracy indeed requires a wide spectrum of expressed ideas, but not a 100% open environment of expression.

           2. Discovering truth: Censorship undermines the effort to discover new truths and expand society’s knowledge base. The discovery of truths—moral truths as well as scientific ones—results from trial and error. To push the boundaries of knowledge we need to explore new ideas, and very often these are unpopular. The history of science is largely a history of new ideas that were ridiculed when first proposed, but later proved to be true, such as the germ theory of disease, the theory of relativity, and the theory of continental plates. Social ideas too, such as gender and racial equality, humane treatment of prisoners, and due process of law, originally faced considerable obstacles. Through free and open debate, the best ideas will then be the ones that have adapted to and survived the critical scrutiny of those with competing interests. The pursuit of all knowledge is a painful process since it forces us to re-evaluate old ideas that we’ve become comfortable with. Censorship surrenders to old ideas without even allowing an opportunity to consider rival ideas that may prove true. A criticism of this argument is that some speech can cause great harm, and these harms outweigh the benefits of the free expression of these ideas. Hate speech harms the targeted minority groups. Gratuitous violence in television, film and music encourages violence in the real world. Pornography has a harmful impact on society’s perception of women. These cater to our basest human inclinations, and it is difficult to see where a higher truth might be discovered through an unrestricted outpouring of these views and images.

           3. Personal autonomy: Censorship restricts our natural inclination towards self-expression, and strikes at the heart of our human identity. One of the defining features of human nature is our capacity to express our opinions, to question the views of others and offer our own unique perspectives. This is an especially important element for one’s sense of individual uniqueness, when society expects everyone to think and behave in fixed and predictable ways. We can’t help but express ourselves, and governments shouldn’t try to stop us. A criticism of this argument is that personal restraint is as important to one’s identity as is self-expression. We have lots of spontaneous urges and impulses—towards eating, procreation, anger, vengeance, jealousy—and in each case we learn to restrain ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d be imprisoned or, worse yet, killed by others in conflicts that we’ve started. Why should self-expression be any different? It’s just one more natural inclination that contributes to mature human character when exercised properly, but can distort our true humanity when abused through unrestraint.


A Middle Ground

Finding a half-way point on specific controversies of censorship is especially challenging, since any compromise will mean abandoning one’s conviction on that issue. Where, for example, is there a middle ground on the issue of flag burning without completely capitulating to the opposition? For conservatives, it would mean conceding to liberals the right to burn flags; for liberals it would mean conceding to conservatives the prohibition against flag burning. And it isn’t an option to suggest burning only half of the flag. The difficulty stems from the fact that censorship is not about a single issue of expression, but rather a potential reaction towards a wide range of issues, such as flag burning, anti-government slogans, hate speech, the desecration of religious symbols, vulgar language, and a host of other controversial forms of expression. A person who feels strongly about flag burning may not necessarily care about other anti-government slogans or the desecration of religious symbols.

           While there may be minimum opportunity for common ground on some specific issues of censorship, there are still the commonly shared convictions of conservatives and liberals alike about the value of free speech and the reasonable limitations that we impose on it. And when two sides can’t agree on whether a type of speech should be censored, the Supreme Court is a valuable referee for settling the issue. They not only pronounce who the winner is, but offer reasons for their judgment, which both conservatives and liberals can analyze and evaluate. Amidst the Court’s various rulings, we find some of the most compelling statements on free speech that have ever been written. One of these is Justice Potter Stewart’s dissenting opinion on a pornography case, where he thought the other justices ruled too harshly:


Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime. Long ago those who wrote our First Amendment charted a different course. They believed a society can be truly strong only when it is truly free. In the realm of expression they put their faith, for better or for worse, in the enlightened choice of the people, free from interference of a policeman’s intrusive thumb or a judge’s heavy hand. So it is that the Constitution protects coarse expression as well as refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance. A book worthless to me may convey some value to my neighbor. In the free society to which our Constitution has committed us, it is for each to choose for himself. [Ginzburg v. United States, 1966]


Stewart here suggests that we should err on the side of caution when deciding whether to censor material. This involves a risk, but taking that risk is much better than the alternative of letting a heavy handed government official make the call.








Dee Snider and Barbara P. Wyatt


In 1985, the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed by the wives of several U.S. politicians and businessmen. Foremost among them were Tipper Gore (wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore), Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker), and Nancy Thurmond (wife of Senator Strom Thurmond). The mission of the organization was clearly stated by Susan Baker:


Our primary purpose is to educate and inform parents about this alarming trend [in sexually explicit and violent music lyrics] as well as to ask the industry to exercise self-restraint…. There certainly are many causes for these ills [of rape, suicide and teen pregnancy] in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors. [Record Labeling, U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing, September 19, 1985]


The PMRC proposed that recording companies place warning labels on their records that would alert parents to the specific content that they might find offensive. The organization originally proposed the following warning label scheme: D/A for drugs and alcohol, V for violence, O for occult, and X for explicit lyrics. They also published a list of the “filthy fifteen” most offensive popular rock songs, which included songs by Madonna, Prince and Sheena Easton.

           On September 19, 1985, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on record warning labels and the problem of violent and sexually explicit music lyrics. Speaking on behalf of the PMRC, Tipper Gore asked record companies to “voluntarily label their own products and assume responsibility for making those judgments.” She maintained, though, that this was not a form of censorship:


 A voluntary labeling is not censorship. Censorship implies restricting access or suppressing content. This proposal does neither. Moreover, it involves no Government action. Voluntary labeling in no way infringes upon first amendment rights. Labeling is little more than truth in packaging, by now, a time honored principle in our free enterprise system, and without labeling, parental guidance is virtually impossible. [Ibid]


Another witness at the hearing was Dee Snider, lead singer and principal songwriter for the heavy metal band Twisted Sister. Snider opposed both music censorship and record labeling, arguing instead that concerned parents should pre-screen musical selections themselves. The PMRC specifically cited Snider’s music as examples of harmful lyrics that promoted sadomasochism and violence. Snider argues that these were unfair characterizations, and that the whole concept of lyrical interpretation and judgment. . . can amount to little more than character assassination.”

           In the aftermath of the hearing, the PMRC dropped their original labeling scheme in favor of a more generic warning label system that was ultimately adopted by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). In 1998 the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held another hearing on issue of record warning label to see if it was effective, and their conclusion was that the labels do not work. Since the previous hearing, music lyrics had become more violent and sexually explicit, as seen particularly in the genre of rap music. Unlike the previous hearing, musicians and representatives from music companies refused to testify at the 1998 hearing. One witness at the hearing was Barbara P. Wyatt, president of the PMRC. Her statement is included below, in which she argues that warning labels are applied inconsistently, and do not adequately indicate the harmful content of music. The record industries themselves are driven by financial greed and cannot be relied on to temper violent music lyrics when they sell well. The violence in music, she contends, encourages violent behavior for those who listen to it. The solution, according to Wyatt, is not censorship, but a heightened sense of moral responsibility and more precise warning labels.



My name is Dee Snider. That is S-n-i-d-e-r. I have been asked to come here to present my views on "the subject of the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content."

           Before I get into that, I would like to tell the committee a little bit about myself. I am 30 years old, I am married, I have a 3-year-old son. I was born and raised a Christian and I still adhere to those principles. Believe it or not, I do not smoke, I do not drink, and I do not do drugs.

           I do play in and write the songs for a rock and roll band named Twisted Sister that is classified as heavy metal, and I pride myself on writing songs that are consistent with my above-mentioned beliefs.

           There are many facets to this complex issue and time does not permit me to address all of them. However, my feelings are expressed for the most part by the August 5, 1985, letter to the Parents Music Resource Center from Mr. Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America.

           This letter was a formal response to the PMRC petition of the RIAA. The only part of this document I do not support is Mr. Gortikov's unnecessary and unfortunate decision to agree to a so-called generic label on some selected records. In my opinion this should be retracted.


Mischaracterization of Lyrics

Since I seem to be the only person addressing this committee today who has been a direct target of accusations from the presumably responsible PMRC, I would like to use this occasion to speak on a more personal note and show just how unfair the whole concept of lyrical interpretation and judgment can be and how many times this can amount to little more than character assassination.

           I have taken the liberty of distributing to you material and lyrics pertaining to these accusations. There were three attacks in particular which I would like to address.

           Accusation No. 1. This attack was contained in an article written by Tipper Gore, which was given the forum of a full page in my hometown newspaper on Long Island. In this article Ms. Gore claimed that one of my songs, "Under the Blade," had lyrics encouraging sadomasochism, bondage, and rape.

           The lyrics she quoted have absolutely nothing to do with these topics. On the contrary, the words in question are about surgery and the fear that it instills in people. Furthermore, the reader of this article is led to believe that the three lines she quotes go together in the song when, as you can see, from reading the lyrics, the first two lines she cites are an edited phrase from the second verse and the third line is a misquote of a line from the chorus.

           That the writer could misquote me is curious, since we make it a point to print all our lyrics on the inner sleeve of every album. As the creator of "Under the Blade," I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.

           Accusation No. 2. The PMRC has made public a list of 15 of what they feel are some of the most blatant songs lyrically. On this list is our song "We're Not Gonna Take It," upon which has been bestowed a "V" rating, indicating violent lyrical content.

           You will note from the lyrics before you that there is absolutely no violence of any type either sung about or implied anywhere in the song. Now, it strikes me that the PMRC may have confused our video presentation for this song with the song with the lyrics, with the meaning of the lyrics.

           It is no secret that the videos often depict story lines completely unrelated to the lyrics of the song they accompany. The video "We're Not Gonna Take It" was simply meant to be a cartoon with human actors playing variations on the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote theme, Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons.

           You will note when you watch the entire video that after each catastrophe our villain suffers through, in the next sequence he reappears unharmed by any previous attack, no worse for the wear.

           By the way, I am very pleased to note that the United Way of America has been granted a request to use portions of our "We're Not Gonna Take It" video in a program they are producing on the subject of the changing American family. They asked for it because of its "light-hearted way of talking about communicating with teenagers."

           It is gratifying that an organization as respected as the United Way of America appreciates where we are coming from. I have included a copy of the United Way's request as part of my written testimony. Thank you, United Way.

           Accusation No. 3. Last Tuesday a public forum regarding the lyric controversy was held in New York. Among the panelists was Ms. Gore. Trying to stem the virtual tidal wave of antiratings sentiment coming from the audience, Ms. Gore made the following statement:

           I agree this is a small percentage of all music, thank goodness. But it is becoming more mainstream. You look at even the t-shirts that kids wear and you see Twisted Sister and a woman in handcuffs sort of spread-eagled.

           This is an outright lie. Not only have we never sold a shirt of this type; we have always taken great pains to steer clear of sexism in our merchandise, records, stage show, and personal lives. Furthermore, we have always promoted the belief that rock and roll should not be sexist, but should cater to males and females equally.

           I feel that an accusation of this type is irresponsible, damaging to our reputation, and slanderous. I defy Ms. Gore to produce such a shirt to back up her claim. I am tired of running into kids on the street who tell me that they cannot play our records any more because of the misinformation their parents are being fed by the PMRC on TV and in the newspapers.

           These are the only three accusations I have come across. All three are totally unfounded. Who knows what other false and irresponsible things may have been said about me or my band.

           There happens to be one area where I am in complete agreement with the PMRC, as well as the National PTA and probably most of the parents on this committee. That is, it is my job as a parent to monitor what my children see, hear, and read during their preteen years. The full responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.

           Parents can thank the PMRC for reminding them that there is no substitute for parental guidance. But that is where the PMRC's job ends.

           The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experiences, and dreams into the words. The examples I cited earlier showed clear evidence of Twisted Sister's music being completely misinterpreted and unfairly judged by supposedly well-informed adults.

           We cannot allow this to continue. There is no authority who has the right or the necessary insight to make these judgments, not myself, not the Federal Government, not some recording industry committee, not the PTA, not the RIAA, and certainly not the PMRC.

           I would like to thank the committee for this time, and I hope my testimony will aid you in clearing up this issue. . . .


Exchange with Senator Al Gore

           The Chairman: Senator Gore.

           Senator Gore: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

           Mr. Snider: Excuse me. Are you going to tell me you are a big fan of my music as well?

           Senator Gore: No, I am not a fan of your music. I am aware that Frank Zappa and John Denver cover quite a spectrum, and I do enjoy them both. I am not, however, a fan of Twisted Sister and I will readily say that.

           Mr. Snider, what is the name of your fan club?

           Mr. Snider: The fan club is called the SMF Fans of Twisted Sister.

           Senator Gore: And what does "SMF" stand for when it is spelled out?

           Mr. Snider: It stands for the Sick Mother Fucking Fans of Twisted Sister.

           Senator Gore: Is this also a Christian group?

           Mr. Snider: I do not believe profanity has anything to do with Christianity, thank you.

           Senator Gore: It is just an interesting choice. I was getting the impression from your presentation that you were a very wholesome kind of performer, and that is an interesting title for your fan club.

           You say your song "Under the Blade" is about surgery. Have you ever had surgery with your hands tied and your legs strapped?

           Mr. Snider: The song was written about my guitar player, Eddie Ojeda. He was having polyps removed from his throat and he was very fearful of this operation. And I said: Eddie, while you are in the hospital I am going to write a song for you.

           I said it was about the fear of operations. I think people imagine being helpless on a table, the bright light in their face, the blade coming down on them, and being totally afraid that they may wake up, who knows, dead, handicapped. There is a certain fear of hospitals. That is what, in my imagination, what I see the hospitals like.

           Senator Gore: Is there a reference to the hospital in the song?

           Mr. Snider: No, there is not. But there is not a reference to a woman, sado-masochism, or -- well, bondage, yes.

           Senator Gore: There is just a reference to someone whose hands are tied down and whose legs are strapped down, and he is going under the blade to be cut.

           Mr. Snider: Yes, there is.

           Senator Gore: So it is not really a wild leap of the imagination to jump to the conclusion that the song is about something other than surgery or hospitals, neither of which are mentioned in the song?

           Mr. Snider: No, it is not a wild jump. And I think what I said at one part was that songs allow a person to put their own imagination, experiences, and dreams into the lyrics. People can interpret it in many ways.

           Ms. Gore was looking for sado-masochism and bondage and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found that as well.

           Senator Gore: Why do you think there is so much sado-masochism and bondage in some of these new songs?

           Mr. Snider: I cannot speak for the other artists. I am really only here to defend myself, and hopefully by speaking for myself as one person, songwriter in a band that I feel has been unjustly dumped on, that will just warn us of the dangers of what we are trying to do here. I really cannot speak for the other bands.

           Senator Gore: Now, you made reference to a comment about T-shirts. I would simply note for the record that the word "T-shirts" was in plural, and one of them referred to Twisted Sister and the other referred to a woman in handcuffs. And it was not intended, as I understand it, to say that you appear with a woman in handcuffs.

           There are a lot of different T-shirts and advertisements around today. I have noticed from some of the fan magazines particularly featuring heavy metal music that little sado-masochistic outfits are advertised, with the fingerless gloves and spikes and studs on them, and that these little S&M outfits are marketed to teens and preteens. Is that correct?

           Mr. Snider: Well, they are marketed. Who buys them I am not sure.

           I would just like to say, in reference to the comment about T-shirts, I have with me a taped cassette of the exact --

           Senator Gore: No, I am reading from your transcript of it in your statement.

           Mr. Snider: I will have to check the transcript, but when it was said there was no question she was referring to a Twisted Sister T-shirt. There was no question if I played the tape for anybody.

           Senator Gore: Well, in your own transcript it is in plural, "T-shirts," and two examples are cited. But I do not want to belabor that point.

           Now, you said that you can look at the titles of albums and look at the covers and tell what kind of material is inside. Does the title "Purple Rain" give you an indication that the material is about masturbation?

           Mr. Snider: You mean the album title "Purple Rain"? No, it does not. I did not say in all cases. I believe I covered that there are occasional albums that are a bit misleading. I said I do not . . . think a store would refuse a parent who came in and said, "I do not like what is on this record. I would like my money back."

           Senator Gore: So the choice the parent has, then, is to sit down and listen to every song on the album; right?

           Mr. Snider: Or read the lyrics if they are on the record.

           Senator Gore: I think that is pretty general agreement that if the lyrics are printed that is one possible solution for this.

           Let us suppose the lyrics are not printed. Then what choice does a parent have? To sit down and listen to every song on the album?

           Mr. Snider: Well, if they are really concerned about it I think that they have to.

           Senator Gore: Do you think it is reasonable to expect parents to do that?

           Mr. Snider: Being a parent is not a reasonable thing. It is a very hard thing. I am a parent and I know. OK. I am a new parent. I only have one child, maybe. But I am learning that there is a lot to being a parent that you did not expect. It is not just always a cute baby. There is a lot of labor, a lot of time, and a lot of effort that goes into it. It is not totally pleasurable.

           Senator Gore: And you will find when they get a little bit older that when they are exposed to the kinds of themes that we were presented with earlier, if you love your child you are going to be concerned about that. And if you want to protect that child from unnecessary exposure to inappropriate material, you sometimes need a little help, the kind of guidance that is presented in the movie industry.

           It is totally unreasonable in my view to expect parents to sit down and listen to every single song in the albums that their children buy in order to fulfill their responsibilities as parents.

           Now, the only thing in your statement that I felt at all comfortable about was when you said you shared some of the concerns of the PMRC. I would simply conclude by expressing the hope that artists and the record companies will find a way to manifest that mutual concern in some self-restraint, and show a responsibility and give parents a break.

           You are right: It is tough being a parent. It is even tougher being a kid. And if both are going to be able to deal with the kind of material that is coming out in popular music, it seems to me the industry has a responsibility to give them a little help.

           Thank you, Mr. Chairman.



I speak as President of the Parents' Music Resource Center which was founded in 1985. In 1996 I became president having been on the board since one year after its inception. As a music major I can speak with knowledge as to the effects of music.

           In 1985 four mothers, Susan Baker, Tipper Core, Pam Hower, and Sally Nevius became aware of recordings purchased by their children. They were appalled by what they heard and decided to see if these messages were common. Much to their surprise and horror they discovered that many recordings on the market include profane, violent, and sexually explicit lines, plus some advocate drug and alcohol use, suicide and even necrophilia. Not only were the lyrics disgusting, enclosures and covers were bad or worse. In talking with other parents, the mothers found that most were unaware of the contents of popular music. Parents would often voice their feelings with "turn that thing down, I don't want to hear it" or would make the firm statement, "Go in your room if you are going to listen to that!" They were unaware of the contents of their listening progeny.

           The women decided it was vital to launch an educational campaign. A board of concerned parents was created and the PMRC was born. Within months there were Senate hearings, not to promote legislation, but to alert the public as to the corrupt and blatant messages being sold to children.


[Problems with the Current Warning Label System]

Subsequently they met with members of recording industry associations and after much discussion, an agreement was reached whereby companies producing the recordings would place parental advisory labels on their own releases which include violent or sexually explicit messages. One might consider this a current rendition of the fox guarding the hen house!

           Unfortunately the industry has used the label as a license to act even more irresponsibly. The problem is that many recordings which should be labeled are not and often the labels are not very obvious. In addition, the industry continues to contract with artists encouraging them to capitalize on the bizarre, obscene and corrupt messages that would be objectionable to most parents -- if the parents were aware of what their children were hearing. It is the responsibility of parents and adults supervising young people to know the content, but how can they be aware of the lyrics if the packages are wrapped and the lyrics inside? They cannot review the lyrics before purchase and the stores will not refund the money after the package is opened. Most adults want to act responsibly, but they need tools to help them make choices commensurate with their own values. There is legislation that indicates consumers have the right to know about any product they purchase. For instance, our food is labeled -- every ingredient. We know more what is in a jar of pickles than we know about the contents of the music being sold to our children!

           We recognize that the music industry is a business and the executives are responsible to stockholders for a return on investments. The greater the return the higher the salaries, the opportunity for acquisitions and more market share. We understand that. We also understand the musician’s right of expression and know that many talented persons are using their talents to impact our young people in a negative way when they could have such a positive influence. The industry could promote music that would be uplifting rather than this overkill of the harmful. So many of our young people do not even know the wonderful music that abounds -- with music eliminated in public schools, students have not been exposed to the many genre such as jazz, show tunes, classical and spirituals. They have not learned to read music nor to sing. All they know are the top forty.

           The industry does not show that it cares about our youth. They have two lines they promote -- one is pushing the line of indecency to entice young people and the other is the bottom line called greed. The recording industry should have an interest in providing the best for our youth; however, they promote negative messages which are not only immoral, but which advocate illegal acts with results that can be devastating for our young people and society. There is evidence that people act out what they see and hear. When the music is put with imagery and words, the action on the part of the listener becomes active, not passive. The imagery becomes very real.


[The Impact of Violent Music Lyrics]

People ask what is wrong with America? Unfortunately the entertainment industry has a great influence. Some in the music industry fight drugs, are involved with the homeless, the elderly, and the hungry and they are concerned about the violence, but they are talking out of both sides of their mouth. Their good works are overshadowed by the volume of recordings that are the antithesis of their good programs. Young people are listening to music for hours every day and they are watching MTV which puts imagery in their fertile minds. How do we know it has an impact? Just consider how Berlitz teaches a foreign language? They teach it by repetition. They bombard the brain with the same words over and over again. The brain receives ALL messages - it does not discriminate between retaining or discarding the good and the bad. What you put in the brain stays and if you feed the brain messages which are detrimental there will be an outcome that resembles the input. The more vulnerable the child, the greater the possibility that the negative messages will create problems. This does not say that every negative is going to corrupt every child, but continuous exposure does have an effect. Dr. Mark I. Singer of Case Western Reserve University completed a study on the Mental Health Consequences of Adolescents' Exposure to Violence in which he studied violent adolescents. 93.4% of the most-violent males and 95.8% females listen to music as their coping mechanism. Consider the music and one can imagine the results. The music industry is saturating the market with the messages which are hurting young people not only in America, but around the world.

           While in Greece last summer, I had the opportunity to talk with prominent people of that country. I was asked the question "why are you sending such violent music, television and movies to our country?" How can I answer that question other than to respond -- greed. Their philosopher Plato even indicated that music forms character and therefore plays an important role in determining social and political issues, he stated "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the states change with them."

           The labels were not advocated to provide a shield for the industry and the artists, (they view it as protection against law suits), but it was hoped that the industry would both comply with the labeling and stop contracting with performers who advocated actions which would be harmful. We understand that the artists feel they are the reflection of society and not one of the causes of the problem, but since they are viewed as idols they do have an influence on our youth. You in the Congress are concerned about smoking, but these lyrics are equally harmful -- we are talking about telling young people to take drugs, drink alcohol, and rape. The venom in some lyrics would not be allowed in most homes. The current idol, Marilyn Manson evokes shouts and cheers in his concerts when he advocates taking drugs and killing parents. Unfortunately many parents have no idea about these idols who have such an influence on their children. We receive calls from adults constantly who voice their concerns and express that they do not know how to combat this problem. They cannot identify music which is within their value system. Many of the recordings are not only violent, but much is verbal pornography!

           Do the labels work? No! There are standardized labels, but no standards. Some companies label and others do not. Packages occasionally have enclosures which are offensive, but are not labeled. A child of any age can purchase recordings.

           When the Senate hearing on "The Impact of Violent Music" was held on November 6, 1998, Hillary Rosen, President of the Recording Industry Association of America stated the RIAA supports the restriction that no one under 17 can purchase recordings which are labeled. A boy who appears to be 12, but is 14, went unaccompanied into a store in Tennessee, at my request, last week and purchased a Marilyn Manson recording, no questions asked. An adult tried to return it, but the store would not accept the return. Stores often refuse to refund the cost of recordings which an adult finds objectionable. In fact, we have been told that there is a limit as to the number of recordings each store can return. Obviously that does not bode well for the concerned parent who wants to make a return and cannot as the store has reached its limit. The same young boy went into another store to make the same purchase and they would not allow him to buy the recording stating he was too young -- that store should get all the business.

           Music executives state that movies and television have similar contents -- that is true as young people are avid viewers, but our youth are constantly listening to music. They play it while walking, riding, exercising, eating, while in malls, at school events and doing homework. Music is very much a part of their everyday activity and it is a very powerful tool. Music is known to heal, to calm and to excite. Music with lyrics can have an even greater impact.

           While speaking at a conference called by the Lieutenant Governor of Alabama, a young girl asked if she could make a comment. She said, "you complain of the actions of youth, but who makes the movies, who sells the alcohol, who produces the television, who writes the advertising, who imports the drugs, who contracts with the artists, who use and abuse young people for sex -- adults do and then you blame the young people and ask us why we act as we do?” The truth hurts.


[The Need for Responsibility and Civility]

The PMRC does not approve of censorship, but just as in everything we do, each must act responsibly and when we do not there are consequences. We are reaping the consequences of a society that has set aside values and civility. There are laws which have been enacted to protect children. We have seen many times how industry plays both sides of the street. They say they care, but look what they do. We implore the industry to address the needs of parents and communities and that the industry becomes the parent's friend. There need to be changes and we need to make them now. A more effective system would be to make the labels more specific as to content, similar to television ratings.

           The First Amendment was not written to provide license to corrupt children and we are not asking for legislation, but we are asking for cooperation within the industry. We are all familiar with the words from the Bible which state "Bring up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." The industry is constantly capturing our next generation. Morality, civility and virtues have made civilizations prosper and have been the basis for noble leadership. Today that is lacking in America. We can either be the beacon on the hill for good or the Sodom and Gomorrah of the next century. Our youth will answer that question as they mature and we as adults are responsible for the result.

           We thank you, Senators, for your concern and for this hearing. In bringing this issue to the public you provide an excellent forum to address this vital subject. We who are on the front lines on a daily basis appreciate this opportunity.


Source: U.S. Senate, Committee on Commerce hearings on Record Labeling, September 19, 1985, and Lyrics and Labels, June 16, 1998.



Please answer all of the following questions for review.



1. Define the notions of free speech, censorship, non-governmental challenges, self-regulated censorship, and self-censorship.

2. Define hate speech, speech codes, and internet neutrality.

3. Give the argument for free speech from democratic government.

4. Give the argument for free speech from the search for truth.

5. What is Mill’s position on free speech and wrong ideas?

6. Explain the expression “free market place of ideas”.

7. Give the argument for free speech from personal autonomy.

8. What is Plato’s argument for censorship regarding protecting children, and what does he say about Homer and Hesiod?

9. What is Plato’s argument for censorship regarding protecting society?

10. According to Feinberg, what are the four conditions for testing whether an offensive expression qualifies for censorship?

11. Explain the original intention of the first amendment to the constitution, and how the due process clause in the 14th amendment changed that intention?

12. Explain the clear and present danger doctrine.

13. Explain the fighting words doctrine.

14. Explain the public figure doctrine regarding defamation.

15. Explain the Miller test for obscenity.

16. What are the criticisms of the three conservative arguments regarding censorship?

17. What are the criticisms of the three liberal arguments regarding censorship?


[Music Lyrics and Censorship]

18. Snider stated that he prides himself in writing songs that are consistent with his Christian beliefs. In the exchange between Snider and Gore, what was Gore’s response to this?

19. Snider argued that the PMRC mischaracterized his lyrics to “under the blade”, and the song was really about fear of medical operations, not sadomasochism. What was Gore’s response to this?

20. Snider argued that concerned parents should listen to music lyrics themselves to make judgments about whether they are inappropriate for their children. What was Gore’s response to this?

21. According to Wyatt, what are some of the problems with the current warning labeling system?

22. According to Wyatt, record companies don’t really care about today’s youth. What are the two lines that record companies promote?

23. Describe the kind of positive and negative impact that music can have on listeners.



Please select only one question for analysis from those below and answer it.



1. Explain the notion of the free marketplace of ideas, and then use an example to show whether it either is or isn’t an effective way to discover truth.

2. Pick an example of an expressed idea that is offensive, and use Feinberg’s four-part test to determine if censorship of that idea is justifiable.

3. There are five exceptions to constitutionally protected free speech, namely, those involving clear and present danger, national security risks, fighting words, defamation, and obscenity. Should one of these be constitutionally protected? If so, explain why.

4. Defend or refute the Supreme Court’s public figure doctrine regarding defamation.

5. Defend one of the conservative arguments regarding censorship against the criticism indicated in the reading.

6. Defend one of the liberal arguments regarding censorship against the criticism indicated in the reading.


[Music Lyrics and Censorship]

7. In her 1985 Senate hearing testimony, Tipper Gore said the following: “The issue here is larger than violent and sexually explicit lyrics. It is one of ideas and ideal freedoms and responsibility in our society. Clearly, there is a tension here, and in a free society there always will be. We are simply asking that these corporate and artistic rights be exercised with responsibility, with sensitivity, and some measure of self-restraint, especially since young minds are at stake. We are talking about preteenagers and young teenagers having access to this material. That is our point of departure and our concern.” Evaluate Gore’s argument.

8. Although Wyatt did not feel that governmental censorship was needed, other speakers at the 1998 hearing did feel this way. How bad would music lyrics have to get before governmental censorship would be appropriate?

9. In an interview on June 21, 2000, Tipper Gore stated the following about the general warning labels that resulted from the PMRC’s efforts in 1985: “It solves the problem. It's respectful of the 1st Amendment rights. It doesn't affect content. But it tells people that there is explicit content before they buy it. . . . We have consumer information on almost all the products that we buy. And certainly when we are making choices for children of different ages it's nice to have that kind of guidance in the marketplace.” Compare Gore’s and Wyatt’s assessment of the warning labels.

10. Evaluate the evidence that Wyatt gives for the harmful effects of violent music lyrics?

11. How might John Stuart Mill in On Liberty respond to the question of record warning labels?