Why Government-Enforced Censorship is a Bad Idea

I realize a lot of you (most of you?) read that title and thought right away: “Duh.” We’ve been generally trained to view censorship as bad. This is America. Freedom of speech!

But the thing about censorship is it’s only called censorship when it’s something you don’t want squelched. When something’s being said you strongly disagree with, then it can be really tempting to not use the word “censorship” when you advocate it not being said. This becomes much easier to discuss when a specific example is used.

Rhode Island has just proposed a law that I tend to think a number of you would support.  Internet Service Providers in the state would be required to block all  pornography and sites that have “patently offensive material” unless subscribers pay a one time $20 fee and acknowledge they know the risks of what they will let through their internet. Porn is bad, and this would end porn, so this must be good, right?

I am against this law, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it wouldn’t actually do much to “stop” porn. The internet is huge and sprawling, and new sites crop up every day. A system could be set up where users report porn when they see it, and then the site where they saw it is added to the ban list, but then it turns into an arms race, with pornographers staying one step ahead of the censors. And yet this in and of itself isn’t a reason not to enact the law. Because while it wouldn’t stop all porn, it would certainly reduce the amount making its way through the interwebs of Rhode Island. After all, I’m in favor of stricter gun control measures, even though I recognize that won’t magically stop all shootings. It will help.

No, the bigger reason I’m against this measure is that it places the government in charge of deciding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and it leaves far too much room open for interpretation.

Laws against child pornography are straight forward, but even they have caused some headaches recently, as the teen sexting craze has brought some teens in conflict with the child pornography laws. I’m still in favor of those laws, because they are fairly straightforward to define.

In this case, however, it does make an attempt to define pornography: it’s anything that has “sexual content,” which the state statute defines as “depictions and descriptions of any act of sexual intercourse, whether “normal or perverted, actual or simulated.”” When you get into the Rhode Island law that prohibits obscene and objectionable publications and shows, it quickly devolves into language that makes my librarian spider senses cringe. There are exceptions to the law if the work has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” What does that mean? Who decides? Is it your Great Aunt Zelma? I’m sure she’ll have a very different idea of what’s acceptable than Johnny the Frat Boy.

The thing is, what’s artistic to one person is porn to another. And once the government gets in the business of deciding what is and what isn’t, then you have all sorts of problems that can make things even worse.

I get it. People don’t like porn. They don’t want kids watching it. They don’t want to stumble across it in their Google searches. They don’t want people hurt by it, whether in the production of it (through exploitation or objectification of women) or consumption of it. I’m not writing a blog post saying I want porn to be even more widely available. But these laws aren’t going to do what you think they’re going to do. They start being used for one thing and end up being used for something entirely different.

Is there a parallel here to gun laws? Perhaps. I can see how someone might be alarmed by a law that prohibits “assault rifles” or “assault-style weapons” or “high capacity magazines”, when the devil is in the definition. And how that definition, once legally set, can be gamed by either side. (Though there are plenty of ways these two sets of issues are very different, and I’m not going to get into that here.)

To me, the best safeguard against pornography is a frank discussion with your family. Talking about what porn is, why it’s harmful, and what to do if you stumble across it by accident. The same sort of conversation you should be having about prescription drugs, bullying, guns, and any number of modern day evils. Relying on the government or an ISP to shield you and your family from porn isn’t going to solve it for you. And it might end up hurting more than it helps.


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