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Creeping censorship

It takes a calm sense of security to be willing to let each person have his say in speaking and writing, regardless of the content thereof. The security may arise out of the conviction that in the free conflict of ideas, truth and sanity will prevail, even if that takes a little time; or out of an abstract devotion to free thought, whatever the outcome.

The trouble is that few people have the strength to cling to this conviction if it appears to them that some view, dangerous to their beliefs or to themselves, is gaining ground. For that reason, the impulse to censorship is insidious in its origin, arising among good and honest people for reasons that seem irreproachable.

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People with some sense of decorum find blatant pornography unpleasant and even disgusting, and fear its effect on the young, the uneducated, the mentally unstable. People with firm belief in traditional values are distressed at iconoclastic views expressed with eloquence and conviction. People who consider themselves oppressed fear views which they interpret as designed to continue or intensify that same oppression.

In every case, it seems reasonable to suppress or circumscribe the free expression of ideas; and it is exceedingly difficult for many, in the name of abstract freedom, to condone blatant displays of sexual perversity or to defend the right to express views that can only be described as cruel and ignorant bigotry.

And yet, however laudable and respectable the first steps toward censorship may appear, these must be viewed with fear and trepidation. Censorship feeds upon itself. Once it is established as a legitimate governmental activity, the pressure is always toward a broadening of the shutdown. Wipe out the more blatant examples of pornography, and of what remains some will seem worse than others and there will be an outcry against those.

And if all are shut down, there will be arguments as to what might be pornographic by implication, even though nothing is explicit, and the tendency will increasingly be to play it safe by forbidding anything on the borderline - and then on the new borderline, and so on.

All this would also be true of censorship in the name of traditional values or national security. The more one gets into the habit of censorship, the more one views with suspicion what is left. The more one blots out dissent, the clearer the view that the nation and its morals are in danger (else why the blotting out?) and the more respectable and patriotic it is to extend the erasure.

Remember, too, that there are always those who must make the decision as to what to censor and what not. If they censor too much, that will scarcely endanger them, for that which is censored is hidden from view and few are aware of its existence. If they censor too little, however, the uncensored material remains on view, and the ultra-respectable and ultra-patriotic might raise a hue and cry which would endanger the censor's job - or life. It is certain, then, that censors would do more rather than less, and that censorship would grow and spread.

We see the beginnings of censorship in our society now. Self-appointed vigilantes descend upon schools and libraries to force books off the shelves - because they possess naughty words, or naughty ideas, or simply because they run counter to some belief held by these vigilantes.

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If these amateur censors have their way, then because they don't like a book (such as ''Huckleberry Finn,'' which, by common consent, is the greatest American novel) then first no child would be allowed to read it in school, and next, I'm sure, no child would be allowed to read it anywhere, and finally, I'm sure, no person of whatever age would be allowed to read it anywhere at anytime.

And from books, they will pass on to songs, to speech, to thought, and will create an America (if they can) in their own image.

Imagine an America cast in that image, super-patriotic, super-respectable - with only certain narrow points of view defined as either patriotic or respectable. Imagine a society gray and humorless, with views that are identical from sea to shining sea, and with nothing otherwise permitted. Imagine an America compressed - narrow - single-viewed - ignorant. There have been many such societies in history.

It won't happen here? Of course not, if the movement toward it is stopped. But the farther it advances the harder it is to stop, and the best time to stop it is at the beginning -- now!

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