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Censorship is a hate crime

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, November 22, 2005

After the infamous moment in which Janet Jackson’s breast was accidentally bared during halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl, the Federal Communications Commission received thousands of complaints. What you may not know, however, is that 98 percent of these complaints came from one organization: the Parents’ Television Council. Effectively, one relatively small group of people decided what was offensive for everyone else.

In the United States, the FCC has the authority to levy fines against companies that broadcast material that is below “contemporary community standards,” whatever that means, and the motto of the Parents’ Television Council: “Because our children are watching,” is archetypal of the arguments in favor of large-scale expurgation.

In fact, it is practically impossible to find any valid contention in favor of censorship that does not mention “the children.” As noted by Marjorie Heins – director of the Free Expression Policy Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship – this fallacious argument can be traced back to Plato, when tales of the erotic exploits of the gods might “engender laxity of morals among the young.”

What I never understood, however, was how the FCC has any authority to abridge the First Amendment rights of adults whatsoever.

Generally, it is argued that the frequencies of the EM spectrum are a “public good.” This sentiment is shared by most paternalistic politicians and interest groups: we all own the airwaves, so we all have a controlling stake in what is broadcast. Right?

Actually, in the dictionary of the contemporary politicians, “public good” does not mean something that it is owned by all people. It means something that is owned – and controlled – by the government.

The truth of the matter is, censorship is another way for power-hungry people to grab their share of the authority pie. Interest groups like the Parents’ Television Council lobby the un-elected FCC to levy fines and regulate the speech of free individuals. “Changing the station” or “not buying a television” is somehow not a viable option, but begging the authorities for more control is. America is in a crisis of personal responsibility and, as always, the government is happy to oblige.

Censorship, however, is not merely an abstraction of Washington. Believe it or not, Notre Dame – the abattoir of free speech that it is – is not immune from speech suppression. Let me be clear: this University is a private institution and can oppress whomever it wants. But, as you may have discovered, some people actually believe that censorship is a Catholic virtue.

Next semester, right on cue, the right-wing organizations on this campus will begin their annual crusade against the play “The Vagina Monologues.” It always seemed odd that a few people here felt the need to command me to not act in or see this play, especially considering that the show is voluntarily performed and attended by adults. However, until it is outlawed, the attacks will continue.

As another example, the campus chapter of the NAACP recently had some student comedians banned from Legends because of jokes that were too “offensive.” They did not meet with or consult the comedians, nor did Student Activities or Minority Student Services. The only difference between the NAACP and the campus anti-Monologue organizations is that the NAACP has succeeded. The comedians are banned until next year.

Too many people seem to believe that somewhere, a right to not be offended exists. Fortunately there is no such right, but to look at the gnashing of teeth by religious and racial groups one would never know it. Political correctness and the “think of the children” argument are merely mechanisms for whitewashing the speech of other individuals. Do not be fooled into thinking that censorship must be instigated by a government, however; as Notre Dame has already proven, silencing the voices of others can come in many insidious forms.

If you are offended by a white person using the word “nigga” in a bar full of adults, and you are consequently willing to attack the fundamental rights of that person, you must reconsider the authority you have assigned yourself. The fact of the matter is: you have none, no matter how offended you are.

So even if a woman’s breast could possibly damage children, no one – not even “the children”- has a right to watch television. Besides, if a nipple piercing is all it takes to destroy the minds of America’s youth, perhaps they should not be watching television in the first place.

Finally, I may not agree with what someone says, but I will always defend his or her right to say it. A central tenet of libertarianism is respecting the sovereignty of other people and tolerating their right to speak out. As Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, said in 1925, freedom of speech is “the right to say the things which displease … the right to say things, even though they do a wrong.”

Has anyone offended you today?

Scott Wagner is president of the College Libertarians and writes politically incorrect, sometimes offensive satire for the Web site The Enduring Vision. He can be contacted at swagner1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.