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The Ballad of Censorship

A truly wonderful thing about freedom of speech is that it allows us to trash other viewpoints when they’re absurd or morally offensive. If the point being made is protected speech, then the counterpoint is most surely protected as well. With that in mind, crying “free speech” in response to criticisms of an article or statement should be entirely irrelevant. This defense is as much an affirmation of the response as it is of the viewpoint under scrutiny. So I would like to make a stand here against a dangerous and insensitive misconception. The only proper time to meaningfully invoke freedom in public defenses is when freedom is actually under attack.

It is my pleasure to report here, much to the dismay of some student activists, that exactly zero student periodical publications in YU have censored content. This is not to say that our university is free of censorship and suppression altogether. To be sure, YU tells its students that the Quipster and AEPI, two vibrant and busy student groups, do not exist. The institution decides which student events and initiatives are permissible and which are not, and it censors internet choices for “the good of the students,” often without informing its constituents of the policies in effect, let alone accepting their input in formation of policy. But when it comes to newspaper content, and there is quite a great deal of newspaper content on these campuses, not a single editorial staff defers to University approval before going to print. And when we, in our campus dialogue, misrepresent this reality, we do ourselves a great disservice. [Author’s note: It has come to my attention since writing this article that the YU administration recently demanded that The YU Beacon pull a story from its website because of its content, and the two parties are now weighing the options. So it seems that some form of content censorship may now occur after all. I stand humbly corrected on this point, but feel that it does not impact on the argument to follow. I continue to oppose both censorship itself and the popular abuse of the term.] I’ll try and elaborate:

If the press is the sacred arena for free speech, then censorship is the tool of choice for its opponents, the ones who think that power justifies making moral decisions for others. I employ this description carefully, because, though censorship is often tied to political self-interest, it can be even more biting and offensive when it aims to fulfill the interests of those being censored. The authorities decide what’s off limits to the population, for the sake of protecting them from “harmful” material. Then they respond to these views by foregoing the realm of right and wrong entirely, opting instead for allowed and not allowed. There are few things more threatening and degrading to a society that thrives on the interaction of autonomous, creative individuals. Freedom is sweet, especially when people can use it to determine and delineate on their own which expressions are objectionable, rather than have someone else do it for them.

So imagine for a moment that these definitions are turned on their head and activists start to conflate public criticism with censorship. Nauseating, right? Criticism is the sign of a vibrant freedom of expression, censorship of the very lack thereof. A publication or writer who responds to criticisms of content by railing against censorship is actually, and ironically, self-defeating. And this applies even to criticisms like “How can you publish that?” or a more generic and refreshing “What the hell?!” What underlies these questions is the fundamental assumption that freedom of expression means that not only can one choose to express or print whatever view he or she chooses, but he or she can also choose to not express a view. Just like political leaders speak of “pro-choice” positions and not “pro-abortion” ones, no protection or freedom can ever force an editor to publish hateful or ridiculous things in the newspaper. The “how can you publish that?” question generally demands an answer with more substance and relevance than cries of disdain for censorship.

There is no protected right to have one’s opinions published in a newspaper. It is up to editors to decide if they want to be involved in propagating writing offered to them. And at that point, it becomes the personal decision of an editor to weigh the value of facilitating open dialogue and expression, versus, in some cases, the detriment of spreading hateful, close-minded, or poor-quality work. If the editor decides to reject something out of personal discretion, he or she has exercised freedom of speech at a very developed and important stage, and the writer will have to either modify the work, or turn to some other mode or place to publish it. But if the editor decides to propagate an opinion and it gets publicly trashed, then no invocation of “freedom” will suffice to explain this decision.

There is, of course, a valid and attractive discipline of activism that believes in releasing and spreading confidential information for the sake of promoting freedom itself. Wikileaks, for all its negative controversy, has earned the admiration of civil rights activists across the globe for its dedication to the highest standard of government transparency, even when sensitive secrets are at stake. But that concerns a fundamental right to know, to understand how we are governed and how our tax money is utilized. Wikileaks and others see these rights as under attack. The same can hardly be said about opinions. Someone may assume a mission to facilitate the spread of viewpoints, no matter how offensive. But unless those viewpoints are suppressed, propagating them is a personal choice of expression, not free-press activism.

I now return to YU, a land with much discussion of press censorship. When terms like “censorship” are employed to defend writing against critique, as they have been in more than one recent instance on campus, the integrity of free speech itself comes under attack. Perhaps more importantly, the necessary sensitivity to places actually devoid of free speech is entirely lost on us. To be clear, this is not meant to be a putting-things-in-perspective argument. There are, in fact fewer things I dislike more than putting-things-in-perspective arguments. (The fact that larger and more serious problems exist does not mitigate any and all smaller ones.) I mainly take issue here with a profound and upsetting misunderstanding of what censorship is and what it is not, a misunderstanding that sometimes comes at the expense of media quality in YU.

And, by the way, this isn’t about irreverence, either. Even those among us who do not cry “censorship” are and will continue to be as irreverent as we damn please. Just try us.