Is it freedom of expression, or is it censorship?

April 7, 2008
There is common ground for compromise, but you will need to work to achieve it.

Back in 1789, Congress passed a set of 10 amendments to the Constitution — The Bill of Rights. It took more than two years to ratify these changes. The wording of the First Amendment is rather concise. It states that:

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.

Much later in history, another organization tried to outline certain rights that all people share. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 19, states that:

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.

Abridging the freedom of speech

There has been a lot of recent interest in and discussion about the content of Web sites, censorship, freedom of speech, and the like. The hired hands we sent to Washington D.C. passed the Communications Decency Act. Because it was apparently a sloppily written, ambiguous piece of legislation that was an inappropriate exercise of governmental power, the Federal Court ruled it unconstitutional. The Web site of the Electronic Frontier Foundation quotes the Philadelphia court that struck the law down on June 11 ... "Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects." By way of explanation, the EFF believes in free speech at the source — and in the empowerment of any audience for that speech to control what they see. 

But, the issue of governmental control over Internet content is not yet dead. On December 6, the Government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The court is expected to render a decision this month.

The same story continues at the state level. The Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union claims that at least eleven states passed legislation in the last two years to regulate on-line content. Several other states have such bills pending.


The prime rationale for imposing censorship of Internet content seems to center on protecting our children from "indecent" material, whatever that means. Other rationales talk about sexual solicitation of minors via computers, on-line transmission of child pornography, and information related to "terrorist acts" and "explosive materials."

On one hand, Internet content about bombs and treason and kiddie porn are a topic on which most right thinking people can agree. On the other hand, let's explore the meaning of the word "indecent" and what constitutes indecent material. Check out the EFF document found at

This Web site asks you to think about whether the statues in the Louvre and on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are indecent. It asks you to consider whether "Oedipus Rex," "The Jungle," and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" are indecent. It asks you to judge whether Web sites on breastfeeding, sexually transmitted diseases and impotence are indecent. Are online medical textbooks indecent?

The point is simply that Web content that is downright lewd to one person is only annoying to another and is totally irrelevant to still a third person. There are no absolute guidelines by which something can be judged as indecent. The judgment is a result of the judger's upbringing, culture, educational level and other factors.

It's a big world out there

To a great extent, what you find suitable and perfectly acceptable is of a cultural origin. For example, French parents give their children diluted wine with meals. It's a cultural thing. When French children reach the age of 16, they do not devote their lives to trying to find some friend old enough to buy them a bottle so they can get drunk surreptitiously as is sometimes the case in the United States. French children have a more rational view of alcohol. 

For example, the French and the Scandinavian countries have a cultural thing about nudity. Parents take their children for a day-trip to nude beaches. It is no big deal. I doubt whether male European children have an obsession with finding a copy of Playboy magazine as is the case in the United States. European children have a more rational view of the human body.

Web fun

The Internet is, among other things, a form of entertainment. Entertainment is something you, personally, enjoy. As in the real physical world, there are forms of entertainment online to suit the taste of anybody seeking them out. You might be interested in opera as entertainment. You might prefer contemporary television fare as entertainment. You might like fishing or sports. You might like simply exploring the Internet. What do you like to do? Go find it.

Similarly, your friends and neighbors are actively seeking out whatever it is they consider to be entertainment. Your neighbors do not need to agree with your view of what constitutes entertainment. You do not need to agree with their views. Entertainment is just what you, personally, enjoy.

There are forms of entertainment suitable only for adults. Similarly, there are forms of entertainment suitable for juveniles. You might not like television content. Change the channel. Some people with whom I am acquainted took the most radical step — they got rid of their television sets back in 1985 because they did not like the programming available 12 years ago. Changing the television channel if you do not like the program is equivalent to clicking on a different Internet hot link if you do not like the Web page content. No one holds a gun to your head forcing you to enjoy anything.

Where is the counterpoint?

The original intent of this article was to present a balanced story covering both sides of the censorship issue. The vast majority of the sites that turn up in a typical Web search on this issue are apparently opposed to any action on the part of any Government to apply any limitations, restrictions, standards, or censorship to Web page content. I searched for a long time trying to find sites that favored censorship. I found very few and those that mentioned censorship danced around the issue.

How is it that so few create such a stir? Is it the case that there are millions of people advocating censorship but none of them post their views to Web pages? This is a real puzzle. If you know of any Web sites that clearly, logically, and cogently argue for censorship and give examples of what should be banned, please let me know about them.

Back to the point

The major premise about Internet censorship is one of protecting children. Children below some age are not sufficiently prepared with enough emotional strength to deal with the nonsense real life offers. Parental responsibility is the issue here. The proper role of a parent is to rear a fully functional child that is competent to make its way successfully in life fully in accord with the norms of society. Part of the job description of a parent is to monitor the actions and development of the child for which they are responsible.

Fully functional children need to know a lot more about computers than their parents know. Computer-illiterate children are going to have a problem with life in the real world. The Internet is a big part of the world of computers. Censorship, if it even makes sense, is a role for parents, not government, to fill. If you don't want your kids being exposed to it, then you have a personal moral obligation to monitor how they use television, radio, recorded music, the Internet, and the Web. One parent with whom I discussed the idea of responsibility said that children should not have a Web-enabled computer in their bedroom to eliminate unsupervised 3 a.m. Web surfing.

Odds and ends

China is actively trying to censor Internet content accessible to its citizens. When Chinese users connect to or disconnect from an Internet access provider, they must register with specific governmental bodies within 30 days. The directive also applies to users of other internationally connected networks. Chinese providers of Internet access must submit to running by the government and international links must feed through government computers. Foreign news organizations providing financial news must submit reports for approval and possible censorship before distribution to Chinese citizens. All this "censorship" seems like a bit of paranoia. What is it that the Chinese government fears? What could our hired hand lawmakers in Washington possibly fear?

E-mail Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, at [email protected].

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