Censorship in the name of civil rights is censorship all the same

CENSORSHIP can still be censorship even when it is imposed in the name of upholding civil rights, preserving religious liberties, or combating violence against women. That's basically what the courts are saying -- and will likely continue to say in defense of freedom of speech and individual protections.

Attempts to censor books and other printed matter are on the increase -- especially in the nation's schools, says People for the American Way's (PAW) annual report on censorship. But this self-styled liberal lobby group concedes the attack is now coming from many diverse groups.

Traditionally, the pro-censorship thrust has originated with the political right. Recently, it has emanated from the religious right.

The ideological left, however, which usually mans the anticensorship forts, now occasionally abandons them and calls for replacing, or rewriting, books with perceived political, racist, sexist, or other biases.

A Berkeley, Calif., group, for instance, objected to a book's ``anti-Soviet'' leanings and wanted it removed from the schools, PAW reports.

Perhaps the newest and most provocative censorship battle has emerged from another war: the fight against pornography.

Feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon -- unlikely candidates for membership in a pro-censorship group -- have mounted campaigns in several cities across the United States to enact municipal ordinances that would limit the sale and distribution of printed and visual materials that, according to them, tend to exploit and degrade women. Their rationale: Such materials violate women's civil rights.

Professor MacKinnon, a lawyer, contends that while restriction of speech (censorship) is unconstitutional, so is that which tends to deprive women of their civil liberties.

So far, however, the antipornography team has been overpowered in both legal and legislative forums by anticensorship forces.

Ordinances inspired by Ms. Dworkin and Ms. MacKinnon have been turned down in Los Angeles, defeated in New York's Suffolk County, vetoed in Minneapolis, and overturned in court in Indianapolis.

The rationale in almost all of these cases wasn't that a concerted effort against pornography and violence against women is not warranted. But sacrificing free speech to put the skids on prurient printed matter is not the correct path, the courts said.

When Indianapolis's ordinance, which defined pornography as ``sexually explicit subordination of women,'' was struck down in federal court, Federal District Judge Sarah Evans Barker called it a restriction of free speech under the First Amendment.

``To deny free speech in order to engineer social change in the name of accomplishing a greater good for one sector of our society erodes the freedoms of all,'' Judge Barker explained, adding that it ``threatens tyranny and injustices for those subjected to the rule of such laws.''

The antipornography vs. anticensorship battle crosses feminist and political lines. The issue is so divisive among feminists that the National Organization for Women -- the nation's leading feminist group -- has refused to come down on either side.

And although the White House, Republicans, and conservatives in general tend to lobby hard against pornography, Judge Barker and US Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook -- both Reagan appointees who upheld the Indianapolis ruling -- thought free speech was too high a price to pay.

Final disposition of the Indianapolis ordinance could well be made ultimately by the US Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, book-banning in the name of religious liberty has also been subordinated by the courts to censorship considerations -- at least so far.

Earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals refused to ban a schoolbook containing earthy language describing a black youth's view of life.

Fundementalist Christian parents in Spokane, Wash., had claimed that ``The Learning Tree'' -- used in a high school literature class attended by their daughter -- should be removed from the English curriculum because it was (in their words) an ``antireligious tract'' and therefore violated their religious rights.

The appellate panel pointed out that the girl was allowed to read an alternative book and that no coercion was exerted against her religious beliefs.

Judge William C. Canby Jr. said that if the so-called ``establishment clause'' of the Constitution, which provides for religious freedom, ``is to have any meaning, distinctions must be drawn to recognize not simply `religious' and `antireligious' but `nonreligious' governmental action as well.''

A lower-court ruling had also ruled against banning the book, holding that the ``burden on . . . free exercise of religion was minimal.''

The Moral Majority's legal foundation, which has backed the fundementalist family's claim, has petitioned the US Supreme Court to review this case.

A Thursday column

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