My colleague, Ms. Brodsky, has hit on one of my hot-button issues. The first contribution I ever made to a brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court was a section arguing that the First Amendment “properly functions to prevent the government from influencing the marketplace of ideas by invidiously supporting or disfavoring particular viewpoints.”
Censorship occurs whenever any authority acts to suppress or inhibit free access or exchange of ideas disfavored by that authority. Not all censorship, however, is a problem. As Sarah pointed out, if parents want to prevent their children from encountering certain ideas, I fully support their right to do so. The problem, as with so many things, is when the government assumes the role of the parent. In a free society, it should never be the place of a government actor to decide what ideas are too unworthy or too “dangerous” for citizens to encounter. As the Supreme Court put it in Griswold v. Connecticut:
[T]he State may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge. The right of freedom of speech and the press includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read […] and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom to teach […]
The U.S. Supreme Court has been called upon several times over the past few decades to address the question of to what extent government officials (or persistent community activists) can lawfully compel libraries to limit or terminate access to various materials. In 2003’s U.S. v. American Library Association, a divided court upheld legislation (sponsored by Senator John McCain), that required libraries receiving federal funds to install Internet filters on computers available to the public. The Court reasoned that because the law allowed librarians to temporarily disable the filters at a patron’s request, thereby giving the patron free access to whatever websites they hoped to view, the First Amendment’s prohibition on censorship was not violated. A good paper discussing the events leading to this case, and its implications, can be found here.
I disagreed with the court’s conclusion, of course, because the imposition of Internet filtering was an example of the government putting itself in place of the parent, saying, “We think these sites are naughty.” The appropriate solution would be for parents to take responsibility for keeping an eye on what their kids are reading or viewing. I’d be perfectly fine with libraries allowing parents to monitor their children’s check-out history. I’d even be fine with libraries allowing parents to bar their children from checking out books by certain authors. And I’m definitely fine with libraries making judgment calls about the best classification and shelving location for any given title — or whether to purchase a book in the first place. But a constitutional problem arises when librarian (or vocal special-interest groups) block someone’s access to an otherwise available book simply because they don’t like the book’s content.