The Public Interest

Pornography VS. democracy: the case for censorship

Walter Berns

Winter 1971

The case against censorship is very old and very familiar. Almost anyone can formulate it without difficulty. One has merely to set the venerable Milton's Areopagitica in modem prose, using modem spelling, punctuation, and examples. This is essentially what the civil libertarians did in their successful struggle, during the past century, with the censors. The unenlightened holder of the bishop's imprimatur, Milton's "unleasur'd licencer" who has never known "the labour of book-writing," became the ignorant policeman or the bigoted school board member who is offended by "Mrs. Warren's Profession," or the benighted librarian who refuses to shelf The Scarlet Letter, or the insensitive customs official who seizes Ulysses in the name of an outrageous law, or the Comstoekian vigilante who glues together the pages of every copy of A Farewell to Arms she can find in the bookstore. The industrious learned Milton, insulted by being asked to "appear in Print like a punie with his guardian and his censors hand on the back of his title to be his bayle and surety," was replaced by Shaw, Hawthorne, Joyce, or Hemingway, and those who followed in their wake, all victims of the mean-spirited and narrow-minded officials who were appointed, or in some cases took it upon themselves, to judge what others should read, or at least not read. The presumed advantage of truth when it grapples with falsehood became the inevitable victory of "enduring ideas" in the free competition of the market. With these updated versions of old and familiar arguments, the civil libertarians have prevailed.

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