Censorship Debate

While US media censorship has gained recent attention as a result of Janet Jackson’s exposure on live television, and the careful attention paid to what information is aired in terms of the Iraq war, censorship is no new issue. Censorship laws within the media have existed for decades, gaining specificity and stringency as an apparent need shows itself. However, laws on censorship do not end the battle over their necessity (or lack thereof) Opposing sides continually pose the costs versus the benefits of censorship within the media, specifically the news media. The debate seems to center around the same general theme:

US censorship practices are beneficial to the public interest.

However, this debate branches into several different subtopics, dependant upon which side of the debate is tackling the issue. This paper will discuss the most current and common of these issues.

First, those who are opposed to US censorship practices typically claim the First Amendment, or the right to free speech as a basis for their argument against censorship in general. As stated by the National Coalition Against Censorship, “Freedom of communication is the indispensable condition of a healthy democracy. In a pluralistic society it would be impossible for all people at all times to agree on the value of all ideas; and fatal to moral, artistic and intellectual growth if they did.” In effect, they are stating that the first amendment rights are a necessary element of our democracy because of the inability to create one map of correct values for a society.

Furthermore, a concern is stated for any infringement on these First Amendment rights because of the “chilling effect” they seem to cause. According to Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist and experienced attorney, such reaction as that which was experienced following the Janet Jackson scandal causes Congress to capitalize on such grounds to institute excessive and unnecessary new laws. Even if such one could deem that censorship was necessary despite First Amendment edicts, she states that Congress is extending the blame and imposing censorship mandates on parties who have no fault in the incident: “Powell has made clear that he has no problem with imposing strict liability – that is, liability regardless of fault – on broadcasters. Even entirely blameless local stations and affiliates will be swept within his net, he has insisted. But that’s unfair: Only culpable parties – if any – should be punished.” In effect, Congress is not only violating First Amendment rights, but punishing those who violate the rules they imposed despite the amendment, AND punishing those surrounding the issue, despite their lack of involvement or fault.

However, the opposing camp cites the argument that the Constitution is up for interpretation, and that the First Amendment’s statement of free speech may not be as black and white as it seems. This party claims that conflict is found when the Constitution is read too literally, and that it is being taken advantage of today by those who push for more civil freedoms. In fact, according to Eugene Volokh, a UCLA professor specializing in the First Amendment, when the Constitution was written, “âÂ?¦it wasn’t even clear whether the First Amendment covered criminal punishment for politically incorrect speech. Many people argued that it applied only to ‘prior restraints,’ such as injunctions or prepublication censorship rule.” Furthermore, as cited by Findlaw.com, the fact that the Amendment in it’s original form, ”The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable,” was not accepted, shows that complete freedom within the media from censorship was not the intent of Congress.

Another need for censorship cited by those in support of government controls is that censorship is needed for the protection of troops abroad. By mandating the censorship of stories about the war in Iraq, the government is protecting both the public from gruesome images and the troops from possible attack due to leaked information. The issue of protecting the public has recently been cited in considering the reinforcement by President Bush of a 1991 policy that the media not be allowed to take pictures of flag-draped coffins returning home. This policy seems to be supported by the public, as in a survey of one hundred students at Louisiana State University, most said no, as cited in a recent Seattle Times article. The fact is, the public neither needs to nor wants to see gruesome images of war. As said by David Perlmutter, the author on two books on media photography, and a professor on mass communication, “The assumption (is) the public (doesn’t) want to see it, and that it would undermine the war effort. The Normandy invasion was a success, but how would we have felt at the time if we had seen the pictures of all these dead American soldiers on the beaches?”

Furthermore, the issue of censorship, to those supporting it, is not an issue of banning anything from the public for arbitrary reasons, but rather for the protection of troops abroad and to maintain the advantage in the war in Iraq. The damage possible by not censoring the media can be seen through the example of Geraldo Rivera and his leak of military locations. By drawing a map in the sand of military locations, he potentially put them at risk for attack by insurgent forces. As said by Desert Storm veteran Clyde Long, “Is everyone really that naive to think that Saddam does not have CNN where he is? We seem to be saving him a tremendous amount of intelligence work.”

However, critics of such censorship claim that the government may use such policies to assuage the publics view of the severity of the war, and in effect deprives them from the truth. On the first issue of banning images of caskets, those against censorship cite that it is dangerous to American’s view of the war. It allows them to be numb towards it, because though words have impact, pictures have much more, and the lack of those pictures causes an ignorance within the public. While there is no denying that this lack of pictures is an appeal to the public, as most studies find that the public would rather not see graphic images of war, censoring oneself against using such pictures jeopardizes one’s credibility as a news source, and, in effect, presents a biased view to the public. According to David Swanson, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and photographer for Echo company during the war, “The poverty of images has removed death from the war: It’s war, whether you agree to it or not … death needs to be shown. You have to know what you might lose before you commit so many lives. A country needs to be reminded that an 18-year-old has just died, and that Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are not just days for picnics at the beach.”

Also, in terms of the media censorship of the news coming from Iraq, those opposed to such censorship claim it is deceptive to the public. While it may be true that the media should not give out specific locations and battle plans, by censoring the majority of news coverage from Iraq they are deceiving the public as to the severity and actual events taking place. A three day conference held by World Tribunal on Iraq backed these findings, citing that Western media was “guilty of inciting violence and deceiving people in its reporting of Iraq.” The tribune goes on to cite the government’s full control on information into and out of Iraq, by means of controlling which journalists are cleared to report from there, and what information they release. They cite that journalists not cleared by the government risk their own lives, as proven by the fact that more journalists have been killed in 14 months in Iraq than in the whole of the Vietnam War. In effect, they (the government and the media) are presenting an untrue view of the war to those they approve for reporting, and putting the lives of those who report independently in danger.
Finally the issue of censorship becomes a battleground when considering media censorship and its affect on youth. Proponents of censorship cite that the news media, and their possible use of harsh language or images may be detrimental to the values instilled in children by their parents. This is specifically true in terms of internet news sources, who have not yet been imposed to such strict regulations as are held by the FCC over broadcast media. Both parents and activists claim that both direct internet news and internet search engines display questionable material for youths.

First, they question the reliability of the information available. According to NetAlert, a forum regarding internet safety, “âÂ?¦information on the Internet may misrepresent the truth, be out of date, biased or just incorrect. For example, racist websites may claim to tell or represent the truth about complex social, cultural or historical issues in ways that appear logical and plausible.” Allowing children to access such information may give them a false impression of the truth.

Furthermore, proponents of censorship cite the free range of the internet to access questionable material. Not only do they stress that search engines often re-route visitors to sites of questionable morals, despite how specifically academic the request for information, but that news items censored on television are available online. For example, though, as stated earlier in this paper, photos of flag-draped coffins cannot be published, they are widely circulated on the internet. Another example is the disturbing video of Budd Dwyer, which though it was censored by television media, is now making its rounds on the net. Access to such information by adolescents proved to be disturbing by the news media, as they chose not to air it, so why should the internet face different standards? Furthermore, proponents of censorship fear that seemingly legitimate news links often bring youths to sites of questionable integrity, including pornographic sites.

However, the opposing side cites that such information is critical to youths in search of news and information. While the internet may have some unreliable sources and questionable cites, the greater danger is in censoring all information as a result. As said by Marjorie Heins, an author who completed a comprehensive study on the issue, “There is the not insignificant question of minors’ First Amendment rights. This is not some fuzzy, ivory tower abstraction. Youngsters need access to information and ideas, not indoctrination and ignorance of controversy, precisely because they are in the process of identity formation. They are also in the process of becoming functioning adults in a democratic society.” In effect, censorship would hurt youths by guarding them from resources.

Furthermore, it has been found that internet filters, even the ones imposed by the government on schools for the protection of children, are subject to false positives and negatives. Therefore, not only are they blocking out valuable news content by such censorship, but they are still letting “questionable” sites through.

Those opposing such censorship also typically recognize the possibility for children to access flawed information, but say, just like in any circumstance, it is up to parents to determine what is right and wrong for their child to view. They see this as a logical alternative to government mandated internet blockers. For, as stated by the ACLU, if such blockers continue to be put in place, “Without free and unfettered access to the Internet, this exciting new medium could become, for many Americans, little more than a souped-up, G-rated television network.” In effect, children would be handed what to think by the base of sites available instead of allowed free thinking and access to information.

As you may see, there is no consensus on the issue of censorship and the news media. While some laws do exist, it is moreover a question of personal and company ethics when it comes to making a decision whether to air certain material as is, or with editing. Regardless, journalistic ethics are questionable in either decision. Are you protecting by censoring, or harming? Is there any right answer?

Sources Cited
Eugene Volokh – 1st Amendment

David Perlmutter/Seattle Times

Information on internet censorship

Information on casualty photographs

American Civil Liberties Union

Background information on censorship

National Coalition against Censorship

Resource for censorship laws

Article concerning council on Western media practices

Congressional ruling on FCC censorship laws

David Swanson – Photographer for Echo Company

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