10.2002c FYI France Essay: "Censorship and Children, in the 'new' US of A"

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Published in French in La Revue des livres pour enfants No. 208 (December, 2002) pp. 119-128 ISSN 0398-8384, as "La Censure et les enfants, dans les 'nouveaux' Etats - Unis" -- see,


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"Censorship and Children,
in the 'new' US of A"

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us -- October 31, 2002


1) The New US Censorship Law

The US now has a national censorship law, designed originally to protect children. But it "protects", in fact, so much more -- too much more -- so that now many groups in the US have combined together to fight it, among these the nation's librarians, and their American Library Association.

The fight has gone on already through the Congress, and through the White House, and through the law courts -- and sits now before the final arbiter in the US system, the Supreme Court of the United States, where it is being decided this year. The result is to be announced probably in the Spring. The law case is named, officially, "The United States of America versus The American Library Association".

How has this happened, that US librarians would be fighting their own national government, so furiously, over a law to protect children? And over a censorship law, at that -- in this nation which is so proud of its civil libertarian traditions?


This new US law is known formally as the "Children's Internet Protection Act / CIPA". It requires that filters be installed, and be active, on any Internet - connected computer located in any library or school in the US. The filters must censor all "visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors". The law was passed by the Congress and signed by the President in 2000, and originally it was scheduled to take effect in April, 2001 -- a deadline now extended until the end of the law case.

The formal penalty, for non - compliance with the law, is just the removal of Federal Government funding for computer equipment, upon which many libraries and schools do in fact rely. But the greater underlying threat is what US law long has labeled the "chilling effect", of any legislation which makes incursions on freedom of expression: any such threat, no matter how small, sends a "chill" throughout the society which inhibits free expression. This is the fear raised by all censorship laws, in the US.

So the immediate problems with this new CIPA censorship law are two: 1) does it really protect children?, and, 2) what about adults, who want to use the Internet - connected computers in libraries and schools -- are their civil rights being censored as well -- is it really reasonable for the law to demand, of adults, that they approach the librarian and "ask to see the dirty books"? Does this not chill the civil right to freedom of expression? The most basic motivations behind such a censorship law may contain some clues -- of interest perhaps to the citizens of any nation, concerned to protect both their children and their civil liberties.


2) The Reactions of Parents

Who can tell why a lawyer does things? Who can say why a legislator does them? Or a parent?... Perhaps the case of the parent is the easiest -- the easiest place to begin, at least, in wondering how a complex piece of legislation such as this new US censorship law ever came about.

There are few things so irrational as a parent, particularly a parent confronting a danger -- real or imagined -- to her or his own children. This was the situation in which all parents in the US found themselves one Tuesday morning only a few years ago. I remember that morning myself, too well. It was April 20, 1999, and along with so many other US parents I followed the news, horrified, as two teenaged boys in Colorado's Columbine High School used assault rifles and pipe bombs to kill twelve other students, a teacher, and themselves. My wife and I had two teenaged boys of our own, at the time, and I thought of our boys.

Another US father who had his own teenaged children at the time of the Columbine High School shootings was Senator John McCain, who has been very active in promoting "Internet safety for children" issues. Many of the other people in Congress as well, at the time, were fathers or mothers -- including many among those who sponsored and voted for the CIPA legislation -- and the US President, who signed it, had two teenaged daughters.

The problem which a parent anywhere has, with personal emotional reactions to such tragedies, is that the "experts", everywhere, always disagree. Particularly on a thing so complex as human behavior -- and particularly the behavior of teenagers -- for every expert who asserts that one strategy will produce a given behavioral modification, another expert may be found who will assert the opposite, saying not only that the strategy will not solve the problem but that it will create even worse things.

So now some in the US advocate the arming of airline pilots in order to combat terrorists, while others say this simply will provide the terrorist with a free on - board gun; or, for schools, some strongly insist that armed police now should patrol the classrooms, while others say that although such a uniformed presence might cut down on still - rare "Columbine High School" incidents, it would destroy the learning process -- the American English expression is, "throwing out the baby with the bathwater..."

So, "what is a parent to do?", to use a perennial expression of the human dilemma... The new CIPA censorship legislation is one desperate result, perhaps -- or this I myself believe -- and there are other such desperations surfacing now, in the newly - traumatized "post - September 11" US, in which there seem to be so many of these threats upon which all experts disagree...

The legal and political situation surrounding "censorship" procedurally is very similar to that surrounding "insanity", in the sense in which Michel Foucault and others have treated that latter term. Such experts never agree as to even the definition of a human behavior, much less what to do about it if it begins to do damage. And yet law courts, on a daily basis, must make decisions... So in the US, at least, the law courts simplistically determine whether someone insane is "dangerous to themselves or to others", and then they lock that person up, or not, accordingly, in spite of all the disagreements -- and, again lacking definitive guidance from the experts, the reply of the judge to the question, "Who makes such a difficult decision?", is, "Well... I do..."

So the procedure on censorship, in this CIPA situation, has been similar. US parents, horrified at "Columbine High School" and a wave of other incidents like it, and impatient with the quarrels among experts who cannot seem to solve such problems, felt that they had to do "something". Perhaps they have legislated with their hearts instead of with their heads: as Senator McCain said eloquently, in the CIPA debate,

-- but this is not dispassionate analysis -- this is a parent speaking...


3) Censorship, for Children...

The case either for or against censorship for children is at best a difficult one to make. The CIPA law began, as its title suggests, as a measure to protect children from what some in the US feel are the harmful effects of their viewing "visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors" on the Internet.

But the disagreement, in the US, about all of this is severe. Many say that a child's viewing such things -- on television, in the movies, in magazines, on the Internet -- will warp that child's mind, create both realistic and unrealistic fears, alter the child's behavior for the worse, and generally contribute to society's more violent and harmful characteristics. Some others, though, argue that seeing a thing depicted visually can provide much - needed "release", of tensions and of fears... And scientific studies of this sort of thing are inconclusive, or contradictory: too little so far is known, it seems, about child development, to prove anything so specific as a causal relationship between exposure to graphic pornography or violence and a particular child behavior.

Against this uncertainty, then, civil liberties groups in the US oppose a politically - competing concern for the "rights" of the children. As much as adults, the reasoning goes, children have a social and legal right to freedom of expression, including protection from those who would prey upon them, such as government censors who might want to mold their political and other views. So, just as teachers ought not to be permitted to inject bias into their relationships with children, so librarians and others who purvey information ought not to be permitted to inject bias either, via the resources which they control.

One leading incarnation of the civil liberties view on this subject, in the US, is a statement by the librarian community, in fact: it is their, "Library Bill of Rights", which declares that,

In policy statements adopted in 1972, 1981, and 1991, the American Library Association declares that it, "opposes all attempts to restrict access to library services, materials, and facilities based on the age of library users", because, "Librarians and governing bodies cannot assume the role of parents or the functions of parental authority in the private relationship between parent and child." To this point of view the new CIPA law now appears to be opposed -- now the government, and through them the librarians, appears called upon to censor what the child reads, regardless of her own views or those of her parents. And so the American Library Association has sued the government, to stop this.

I was a child in the 1960s myself, however, so I personally recall the years which produced the vast "reform" measures, and legislation, which so many organizations like the American Library Association implemented during the subsequent 1970s and 1980s. The 1960s were years of social turmoil, I well remember -- certainly after the placid 1950s of my earliest recollections of US households -- and the reforms which followed were reactions, to what I and others of my age perceived at the time to have been the inadequacies of our parents' rules.

Since then, however -- since the 1970s -- we have become parents ourselves. And raising children is a very different experience from being a child : one becomes more careful, and perhaps -- just perhaps -- more conservative... "Reaction" reforms and legislation, now, perhaps are as much a product of such generational change, then, as they are of any really considered analysis of current problems -- better than the liberties, for which we yearned ourselves back in 1972, seem the protections which we crave for our children now, perhaps. Mundus senescit, or at least we ourselves do.

So my own reaction, as a father -- and I expect Senator McCain's, also as a father -- to the freedoms claimed for children by the librarians' now - quarter - century - old document, has been: well, no -- these liberties will not work, certainly not for raising children in a 21st century filled with divorce, disintegrating family structure, and an all - powerful Youth Culture now grown out of control... the grumpy side of parenthood asserts itself... I even have written essays to this effect, myself, to the dismay of my own children and of my own personal memories of the freedoms, and yearnings for more, of childhood.

And is the danger an equivalent one? Is the threat, of government or other bias and control through censorship, to be equated, with the supposed threat to children posed by pornography and other bad things which they might see on the Internet? But this judgement is not a matter of mathematics -- not a matter of computing comparative threats, and then simply weighing them against each other, in some sort of "Utilitarian calculus". Just as we do not even know how to alter child behavior, really, we do not know the political effects of censorship. In many situations, after all, forbidding a thing increases its attractiveness -- certainly for teenagers, anyway, as any parent can attest. The judgement that concerns for "censorship" might outweigh concerns about "pornography" is not an analytical one -- again we are dealing with emotions at most, perhaps, and with the often - hysterical reactions of the heart, rather than of the brain.

So, there are arguments in favor of censorship for children, in the US, as well as arguments opposed.


4) But Censorship, for Adults ?

But the case against censorship for adults is far easier to make. Most societies, in the US as elsewhere, seem far more settled in favor of freedom of expression for adults than they are on matters of how properly to raise children. Freedom of expression for adults even is seen as a civil liberty crucial to the establishment of democracy, in most places nowadays, and remarkable transformations of the past fifty years have made democracy the leading governmental form at least pretended by nearly every regime anywhere.

Not that the reality is accurately represented by the pretense -- certainly there still are national regimes which are not democratic, and among those which are, freedom of expression is not always consistently honored -- censorship of adults still abounds, in many countries and in many forms. But the acknowledgement that freedom of expression is at least the ideal is a great and universal achievement of the current century: not even a century ago, things still were different -- various competitors such as nationalism, or religion, or "the spirit of the people", or the social "class" or political party, all still sought the status now accorded the individual's quest for freedom of expression, in too many value systems -- but recently this seems, at least, to have changed.

And it seems, moreover, that freedom of expression has become so important that other competing values even must be entirely sacrificed, if they come into conflict with it. For without freedom of expression we cannot have democracy, and without democracy we cannot have a satisfactory society, for children or for adults -- or so runs this argument -- increasingly a universal idea, heard in all societies and everywhere on the planet.

But other very important values do occasionally conflict with this -- among them religious precepts, at times, or economic considerations, or traditional cultural practices -- modern societies have had difficulties, for example, in reconciling traditional views of the role of women, or aspirations for economic equality, or sacred teachings of various religions, with the view that information should be kept free and open and uncensored.

In all such cases, freedom of expression for the adult population nearly always has been deemed of such overriding importance in the modern world that the other, competing, values have been forced to accommodate it or to give way. Religions have "modernized", economic rules have liberalized, cultural practices have reformed or have been cast onto history's rubbish heap of traditionalisms. We live, nowadays, in relatively free and open and uncensored -- if "interesting" -- times.

But the worry of parents for the welfare of their children, as well, is one such social value which can run afoul of freedom of expression. And here the outcome of any direct competition between these particular two values is not so clear. Parents care a great deal about their children, and there have been a great many hysterical parents among the effective decision - makers dealing with many of the world's increasing problems, recently. Censorship legislation such as the CIPA has been, then, one such battleground -- in which the worries of parents have come into direct conflict with the worries of civil libertarians -- and important though the latter are, the sheer forcefulness of the former might seem to make them the safer bet to win out over the other, in the end.

So the error, of CIPA, has been to enact a censorship which threatens adults. This seems not to have been the intention of the original legislation, which was aimed only at the protection of children. But no one yet has developed a means of implementing the latter without the former -- US legislators and technicians and parents cannot figure out how to censor children, in libraries and schools, without censoring adults as well -- the Internet filter which screens pornography from the eyes of the kids also hides it from the grownups, effectively, if the adult must demand of the librarian that she be allowed to remove it. And if an adult can be censored in this way for pornography, the next step would be politics, and then what else? -- thus the "chilling effect", so feared by civil liberties law...

The corresponding success, of CIPA, also has been to demonstrate the concern -- blind but desperate concern, perhaps -- of increasing numbers of parents, over the liberties increasingly taken by and with their children. Shattering incidents such as the Columbine High School shootings may be nothing more than exceptions, triggering simply the latest anxieties of parents who necessarily grow more conservative as they grow older, and who always have feared for the welfare of their children. But if the society is in fact growing more dangerous -- too dangerous -- the CIPA censorship law at least shows this, and shows that those dangers must be dealt with in some way, if not necessarily in this way.

CIPA is a measure which simply went too far, therefore. In an attempt to censor children -- perhaps a good, if unscientific, reaction by concerned parents to truly excessive tendencies in modern US society -- the legislators ended up censoring adults, a measure which would tend to destroy the entire society, parents and children and the "rights" of both, along with everything else. So CIPA is being opposed strongly by civil libertarians, myself included.

But, as a parent, I still worry. So does Senator McCain. Whether the US Supreme Court next Spring agrees with CIPA or not -- I truly hope that it does not -- the problem remains, what to do about the children? I myself believe, whatever the experts agree or disagree about, that less viewing of online pornography and violence would not hurt childhood in the US. Childhood is a time for innocence, and all lives need some of that -- recently we have turned out too many children who have too much knowledge and experience and not enough innocence, I believe, by trying to impose on ourselves so much social change at once. But then I am growing older -- as a child myself, back prior to the 1970s when so much of current US civil liberties legislation first appeared, I will admit that I wanted the freedoms too, then -- only now I know better, at least as to child - raising... I think...


5) Compromises -- Dangers and Fears, Both Real and Imagined, and Extremism the Enemy

So, as with so many things in law and legislation, censorship seems to be a compromise. Does the US want to make sacrifices of freedoms of adults, which are certain, in the creation of protections for children which are not so certain? Is this the sort of emotive interest - balancing really involved, in this new US censorship law?

Once again, it is easier to examine the general influences than it is to identify the particular motivations. Real dangers do appear to be involved, now, as are fears both real and imagined --

Among the current real dangers, "child endangerment" and "terrorism" are in the lead, in the US.

In addition to real dangers, then, there also are fears of still others. Among such fears are threats both real and imagined -- either one can be just as influential as the other, in motivating social policies such as censorship :

Likewise even with "terrorism", then. There is no great degree of agreement yet -- within any one society much less internationally, sadly and perhaps even tragically -- as to what this term actually means. As a mere label it covers real human dangers which, like high school shootings, may recede as gradually as they have crept upon us -- and the sense of emergency which they appear to entail, and which currently is used to justify censorship as well as other more extreme emergency measures, may recede with them. One hopes so.

Fears, however, unlike real dangers -- such as fears of technology, and of "the new" -- are perhaps more permanent. There are some people who always have, and always will, walk around permanently burdened by such fears. But, as with general society's ability to adjust to emergencies, if individuals all were to become so fearful we would not survive. Technology can be accommodated -- and even "the new" eventually becomes, with a little patience and along with the rest of us, among "the old".

The problem is not so much the causes, then, as what we do about them. Are the measures which we implement -- defensive, and short - term, and immediately necessary as they appear to be -- in fact as effective, and as temporary, as we normally intend? Are the armed police in high school cafeterias, and the gun - toting airline pilots, and the censorship, in fact effective for the purpose intended -- and, even if so, ought such practices to be continued once the immediate emergency has passed?

-- Benjamin Franklin, who uttered these words so famously at the final session of our US Constitutional Convention, was a clever man. Like so many of his sayings, this one can be taken two ways -- either as a warning that the US could become despotic, in spite of its laws, or as a reassurance that it never could -- Franklin's delicious ambiguity being a function of the degree of faith which one has in human nature. Franklin I believe may have had the faith that US despotism could not happen -- I do myself -- it is my own belief that a truly democratic system, which the US does have, always will rely ultimately upon the non - despotic inclinations of normal citizens. But in "emergencies", normal citizens -- and particularly the parents among them, who feel their own children to be threatened -- are inclined to extremist actions, actions which they usually regret later on.

So perhaps this is the ultimate problem posed by "censorship" efforts, in the US today. It is the ultimate problem in fact for many, and perhaps even most, of the remedies adopted for coping with "September 11" and "Columbine High School", and other emergencies which have plagued US society recently -- anthrax, Iraq, the DC sniper, terrorism, others... Most countries face similar difficulties, in balancing conflicting values -- for many, today, increasingly in situations of change and instability -- and most countries want to provide protections for their children, as well as safeguards for their civil liberties. The US has made one desperate try at this now, to cover an "emergency" -- but the questions ought to be whether, and to what extent, such "emergencies" in fact are met by the legislation which has been adopted, and whether and to what extent that legislation ought to be continued, past the inevitable expiration of all emergencies.

For emergencies do expire. But legislation, very often, doesn't.