Musings on Censorship and Civil Liberties

My interest in censorship issues was first piqued by the Parental Advisory Label; its standardization in 1990 coincided with my first music purchases. At the time, my strong feelings about the PMRC led me to write a letter to Tipper Gore (it was written in pencil on 3-hole paper from my Trapper Keeper). I’m not sure if I ever sent that letter, or if she received it, so consider this blog post my 20-year-late follow-up.

Even as a pre-teen I sympathized with parents’ desire to know about their kids’ musical choices (though this would be better accomplished through research and conversation), and I knew that limiting sales to those under 18 was not exactly tantamount to censorship. But the movement and its leaders’ intentions made me wary of the creeping scope to which civil liberties infringements are susceptible.

For example, the PMRC originally proposed labels that were more specific than, say, the FCC’s guidelines for obscenity (which I also find suspiciously subjective). One of their proposed categorizations was “O”, which would apply to music with occult content. This was clearly religious discrimination. After the senate hearing, the RIAA dropped these categorizations in favor of a general label, and the labeling program is voluntary; still, it left me suspicious about the motivations of would-be censors.

Ladies of the PMRC
The ladies of the PMRC, my remix

A related 1985 quote by then-president Ronald Reagan:

“Music and the media floods [parents’] children’s world with glorifications of drugs and violence and perversity, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they’re told, because of the first amendment. Well, I don’t think James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and one of Virginia’s proudest sons, ever imagined that his great document of liberty would be twisted into a pretext for license. I don’t believe that our Founding Fathers ever intended to create a nation where the rights of pornographers would take precedence over the rights of parents and the violent and malevolent would be given free rein to prey upon our children.”

Civil liberties have been on my mind a lot lately. Last week, I went to see Glenn Greenwald present about “Civil Liberties in the Age of Obama” at Brown University. He made many great points, including that civil liberties are hard rules…not negotiable, for example, in “times of war”. We can’t, as Reagan did in the above quote, speculate on the intentions of our founding fathers. The Bill of Rights is so powerful and relevant because of its non-specificity: it continues to protect the minority from the majority reglardless of the specifics of current issues.

I’d like to share a few of the points he made (undoubtedly less eloquently):

1. Many people believe if they aren’t currently targeted, civil rights violations shouldn’t worry them. But Mr. Greenwald emphasized that they should, because civil liberties violations are subjective and bound to have a creeping scope: a scope which may very well include them someday. This really resonates with me.

2. Potential civil liberties violations are “sold” to the public by the use of repugnant examples. A case I saw recently: US can conduct off site searches of computers seized at borders. It’s OK, because it helps us catch pedophiles, right? We should be suspicious of this kind of marketing.

An endorsement of civil liberties does not have to be an endorsement of everyone they protect. This famous quote comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Voltaire summarized by Evelyn Beatrice Hall)

3. Bi-partisan disregard for civil liberties is deadening the public debate about these issues. When a Republican was in the White House, Democrats were eager to point out violations of civil liberties, and Obama explicitly promised a change in the way civil liberties were handled. Now that civil liberties violations have continued, and in many cases gotten worse, it’s important to keep the public discourse alive. Two related links about the Obama administration’s failings in the civil liberties arena:

One thought on “Musings on Censorship and Civil Liberties”

  1. You’ve hit on a big one here with your point #1. Most of the American public is shockingly willing to give up civil liberties for both themselves and others, because they don’t see it affecting them.

    I ran into this a lot several years ago when the CBP set up a border checkpoint in Hartford, VT, a bit south of the I-91/I-89 interchange, almost exactly 100 miles from the border. For almost a year, during several periods of the day, they’d divert southbound I-91 traffic through the rest area, and look over the cars. “Suspicious cars” were pulled over, and the occupants interrogated about where they were coming from, where they were going, what they had in the car, etc.

    My problems with this were several: After a short period of time running the checkpoint, it became obvious that “not white” was the clear heuristic they had adopted. Regardless how they got to that point, it became a real fact that driving that route as a non-white person took 15 minutes longer than it did for a white person.

    My second problem was the invasiveness of the questions. Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Did you meet with people? Who? Why? For a variety of reasons, I routinely carry my US passport with me. One time when I was stopped, I gave them my passport. That immediately should establish that (a) I’m American and have a right to be here, and (b) it’s no damn business of theirs what I’m doing. But I still had to spend 15 minutes of invasive questioning (most of which I declined to answer) while they held me while “verifying the accuracy of my credentials).

    But, throughout that period, almost everyone around here had the attitude of “it doesn’t affect me, so why do I care?”, and “Well, we need to fight terrorism and control our borders!”

    (And, going to your point #2, “Terrorism” was the generic reason used to sell it, although when it came to determining “success”, they pointed to a few immigration and minor drug busts)

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