The honorary Oscar given to Elia Kazan has generated renewed sympathy for the writers, directors, and actors whose membership in the Communist Party — revealed in the 1940s and 1950s by courageous witnesses such as Kazan — landed them on movie studio blacklists.
Such blacklists, it is said, are a form of “private censorship” that deprives people of their right to speak freely, on pain of losing their employability. “Censorship” — the American Civil Liberties Union declares — “can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups.” But by this reasoning, private individuals who simply choose not to patronize their enemies are engaging in essentially the same wrongful activity as are governments that imprison their citizens for expressing unpopular ideas.
The unspoken premise of this viewpoint is that freedom of speech includes the right to be provided with a printing press, a microphone, or a motion picture camera — at somebody else’s expense. It implies that you are not free to speak unless you can coerce others into furnishing you with the physical means of conveying your ideas.
The genuine right of free speech is simply stated: you may use your own voice and property to say what you think, and no one may use physical force to stop you. This right of free speech necessarily includes the right not to support ideas you oppose. Imagine if every speech by a civil rights leader were required by law to include the views of the Ku Klux Klan. The speaker’s right of expression would be rendered worthless, because every statement he believed to be true would be undercut by a falsehood.
This principle does not change when the speaker uses his property to spread his views. One who owns a printing press, a radio station, or a film studio has the categorical right to deny use of his property to those whose ideas he finds abhorrent.
Private actions such as boycotts or blacklists are based on the legitimate refusal to use one’s own resources to support one’s adversaries. Because no force is involved, such actions cannot censor anyone — even if the goal is to convince everyone on earth to reject a certain person or idea. A studio’s refusal to hire a movie director does not prohibit him from seeking a platform for his views elsewhere, nor does it compel other studios to refuse him employment.
There is no such thing as “private censorship.” It is only when government uses its coercive powers to inhibit speech that censorship occurs.
A recent ACLU case involving computers and the Internet shows how this confusion over the meaning of censorship continues to blight the law. The ACLU sued a Loudon County, Virginia, library that had installed a software filter on its public Internet computers. The filter’s purpose was to screen out sexually offensive material that children might see. (Because the filter worked imperfectly, it also screened out non-offensive material.)
According to the ACLU, that was censorship. The court agreed and ordered the library to stop filtering Internet transmissions. But that decision was wrong. In reality, the library’s use of an Internet filter was simply a refusal to patronize certain Web sites on its computers — a “blacklist,” if you will. But it was a refusal that left others free to view those sites on their computers and that left the sites’ authors free to disseminate their views elsewhere.
The library’s action was no different in principle from a refusal to subscribe to Hustler magazine. That is not censorship, and the fact that it was a public library does not change the essential nature of the action.
The notion of “private censorship” cuts the moral ground out from under the argument against genuine censorship. For if we are all victims of censorship, with our only choice being who will exercise that oppressive power, then the door is wide open to the claim that we should be censored by government — the representative of the “public interest” — rather than by private, unelected individuals.
If the decision not to patronize one’s intellectual enemies continues to be deemed censorship, actual censorship is inevitable. Now is the time, while we are still years away from such a catastrophe, to reaffirm our commitment to freedom of speech by repudiating the false concept of “private censorship.”
Thomas A. Bowden
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