When educated folks sniff at censorship, they mean the Yahoos. The rough and ready. Like the foot soldiers of Rev. Falwell.
Yet, no barriers of class, race or gender inhibit the lust to censor. As Phil Kerby, a Los Angeles Times editorial writer says, "Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex, a weak second."
Consider the students at the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H. Recently, these prospective lawyers voted 55 to 47 to ban three periodicals from the campus bookstore, which is run by a cooperative consisting of these very same scholars. The condemned publications were Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, and, as might be expected, this new Yankee legion of decency was powered by feminists.
But the Women's Caucus cannot take all the credit; also smiting the impure was a local of the National Lawyers Guild, consistent in its zeal to limit the Bill of Rights to the socially and ideologically worthy.
Being nearly professionals, these law students did not, of course, own up to being censors, because to be called a censor is so distasteful to Americans that it might even be grounds for a suit claiming defamation -- although I do not cite the grounds as a suggestion. No, the removal of those three magazines was not a First Amendment issue, not at all, said one of the female law students. It was a question of marketing policy rather than constitutional law.
A member of the minority told me gloomily: "We argued at the meeting called to ban the magazines that the rights of individuals to receive whatever information they choose would be violated by the ban and that the removal of magazines on the basis of ideological content was anathema to the free flow of ideas and philosophies characteristic of an academic community. These arguments, unfortunately, did not prevail."
Perhaps the righteous majority will now start to work on the law library, which is bound to include certain volumes by offensive First Amendment extremists. Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, for instance.
Meanwhile, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, certain feminists and their allied had persuaded the dean of the School of Education summarily to remove from an art exhibition in the Humanities Building a book of lithographs and verse. The group claimed that the book, the work of a graduate art student, demeaned women.
After a local newspaper made rude noises comparing the university to common parents who had recently stripped a nearby public school library of suspect books, the faculty of the university art department asked the dean to restore the book of lithographs to the exhibition.
In its resolution, however, the faculty was careful to absolve the dean of any act of censorship. Academic deans could no more censor anything than police could kick in the teeth of the Fourth Amendment. The dean, you see, in good faith had simply acceded to a number of women, including art students in the department, who had pointed out to him that the lithographs, degrading women as they did, constituted sexual harassment. And the university faculty had just adopted rules defining sexual harassment. The dean applied the new rules to the book, and expelled it. The chancellor of the university also agreed that the work "appeared to have violated those rules."
Consider the future of free expression in the academy under this innovative standard for policing (but not, of course, censoring) antisocial materials. It goes beyond art exhibitions. Books on shelves without any illustrations at all can be charged with harassment and incitement by their very titles. Or, by what is known of their authors. And why stop with sexual harassment? All sorts of harmful material can be covered by ever new rules. Eventually, some clearheaded dean, unintimidated by local editorial writers, will pluck out the First Amendment itself. After all, it was written in an America of unbridled racism and sexism.
Even then, I would venture, that dean will not call what he does censorship. As everybody knows, a university must always take care to be relevant to the compelling issues of its time. The Yahoos always lurch backward; the university goes forward.