censorship and editorial control (237)

Sun, 19 Mar 89 18:20:53 EST

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 741. Sunday, 19 Mar 1989.

(1) Date: Sun, 19 Mar 89 13:09 EST (149 lines)
Subject: censorship at Stanford and elsewhere

(2) Date: 18 March 1989 (68 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: unlicensed publishing

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Sun, 19 Mar 89 13:09 EST
Subject: censorship at Stanford and elsewhere

I share Joe Giampapa's suprise at the virtual absence of
comment on the article which he circulated on March 2d concerning
an incident at Stanford University. It is even more suprising
following the one comment contributed by Stephen Clausing on
March 13th. His observation that Stanford as a private
institution has the right to control publication cuts right to
the heart of the issue of whether or not one can distinguish
between publication and access to information, particularly with
the growing importance of telecommunications for academic
discussion and research.

While a bulletin board or discussion line is a means of
publication, it is also a source of data. Since those in control
of publication have not allowed me to see the joke in question, I
cannot comment specifically on that joke -- but notwithstanding
the content, I believe it ought to be available once it has been
posted and certainly after it has appeared in print in the San
Jose newspapers. There are three reasons for this: first,
jokes, like graffiti, are symptoms and it is unhealthy for us not
to have the early warnings provided by such symptoms. The
problem is not the repetition of the joke, especially in the
neutral context of a database of jokes; it is the partially
hidden situation to which the joke is alluding. This should
hardly be esoteric to humanists after Freud -- in fact, after
Aristophanic comedy.

Second, there is the question of the role of university
administration, or even bodies of academic overseers, in the
determination of what is or is not appropriate for researchers in
the humanities and social sciences to access. Is the morality of
university senates or university administration any less
susceptible to error or corruption than that of other forms of
government? As a professor and a former president of a small
university, I am uneasy with the suggestion that senior
administrations or academic senates make such decisions, even if
it were proper, wise or prudent to do so, since these are
decisions which it ought not be necessary to make in the context
of an academic community. Even though we are discussing
electronic communication, it is prudent to remember that as
recently as the Second World War period, some libraries felt
quite free to limit access to books considered to be obscene,
such as Joyce's Ulysses, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, or
Henry Miller's Tropics. In fact, access to de Sade was difficult
in many areas in the 50's. Less than one hundred years ago in
some jurisdictions there were arguments in favour of prohibiting
the reading of Darwin. It is not that long ago that many Latin
texts were only readily available in expurgated editions. While
the censorship of a single, probably quite trivial joke (How can
I be sure it is trivial when I do not know the text?), may seem
irrelevant by comparison, the principle involved, that anyone
should decide what another can read or see or hear, is
problematic. It is doubly critical when it occurs in an academic
environment where the protection of academic freedom is so
essential. If I were using the Stanford bulletin board to study
jokes in relation to immediately contemporary texts, as an index
to contemporary community problems or in some other way, should
an official in computer studies or the senior administration be
able to determine the propriety of that which I have access to?
Particularly at the present moment these are critical questions.
It is always difficult to have to argue for specific cases, since
very frequently they involve utterances with which we are in
fundamental disagreement.

Finally, there is the fact that in the United States where
this discussion began, there are guarantees of freedom of speech
and of the press, which ought to extend to electronic discussions
and electronic transfer of information within the academic
community, if that community is to be genuinely free. I
appreciate the fact that in the history of court decisions on
telecommunications the exercising of this right has been treated
as a complex issue, but certainly the privilege of freedom of
communication should extend to all who want to think, speak,
and communicate. In fact, the Canadian Charter of Rights,
enacted in 1982, guarantees freedom of communication, though
subject to a criterion of reasonableness. Ought not humanists
argue that this criterion of reasonableness ought cover only
the most flagrant misuses of communication such as the crying of
"Fire!" in a crowded building? If we cannot consider the
electronic networks as open and uncensored, can they be used with
full effectiveness? Is it not essential we all permit (not
tolerate) expressions of what we dislike and disapprove in order
to carry out a mutually informed discourse. If we cannot treat
such questions with understanding, how can we pursue our various
vocations which require the interpretation of texts and the human

Certainly publishers as corporate institutions have owned
the publication facilities and they have had the right of what to
print or not to print. Yet has that always proved desirable?
Demands for and acts of censorship of texts of value and
importance still occur more frequently than we would like to
admit. Electronic communication may represent an important
alternative in publication. On this broader issue, I would
mention that as recently as last May Channel 4 in the UK refused
to show a film (scheduled to be shown after midnight) made in
1968 which won the annual award of the World Council of Churches
when it first appeared, even though it was relevant to the
discussion of 1968 to which the channel had devoted the entire

In making these remarks I appreciate the need for the
"owners" of discussion lines to exercise editorial discretion and
to intervene to spare most of us from purely personal issues and
bickering. But the question of how this editorial activity needs
to be exercised is one which needs continuous ongoing
consideration. The joke in question would I am sure be
inappropriate as a submission to HUMANIST, just as our
speculations on the cost of "electronic Shakespeare" would be
inappropriate to INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS. But once the joke is a
matter of discussion, quoted in the public press, protected by
guarantees of freedom of publication, perhaps it ought to be
quoted when the rest of the text is quoted. (I am not
criticizing Willard's decision; I probably would have made the
same decision in his position given the guidelines within which
HUMANIST works. We must, however, constantly review our
guidelines.) Controversial texts for discussion should be
available in a correct and complete version.

Stanford was clearly threatening freedom of expression in an
academic environment by exercising censorship, for it had
permitted a bulletin board on jokes. Nor would the answer be to
prohibit bulletin boards of such a nature. Perhaps they need,
like films and late night shows, disclaimers and warnings. The
underside of our society which they expose (often unconsciously)
requires sustained discussion and debate which are not enhanced
by supression. By calling our attention to this article Joe
Giampapa has made a valuable contribution to HUMANIST.

Donald Theall

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely
according to conscience above all liberties." - Milton

PS - some definitions requested in a previous message:

censor ....2. one who exercises official or officious
supervision over morals or conduct; 2b. an official in some
countries who...." (Oxford English Dictionary)

censor 1. An authorized examiner of literature, plays or other
material, who may prohibit what he [sic!] considers morally or
otherwise objectionable.... 3. Any person who condemns and
censures. (American Heritage Dictionary)

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 18 March 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: unlicensed publishing

Donald Theall's note is a welcome attempt to expose to view once
again the difficult problem of censorship and the related one of
editorial control on Humanist. It is valuable precisely because
it does not proceed from the assumption that censorship is itself
the only problem. Nevertheless, I think it tends to underestimate
the craft of the worm.

Theall quotes Milton on censorship, as an educated person can
almost be expected to do, but he does not note that in the
Areopagitica, where Milton argues most eloquently for "unlicensed
printing", a line is drawn between what can and cannot be
printed. For a 17th century Puritan, very much involved in
defending the new state against its enemies, Milton found certain
writings intolerable: in his words, those arguing for "popery and
all open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and
civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate... that also
which is impious or evil absolutely, either against faith or
manners, no law can possibly permit, that intends not to unlaw
itself". So also in the U.S., where matters of religion are not
linked to civil and military authority, we find the doctrine of
"clear and present danger"; the example usually given is, as Theall
notes, shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. The danger comes when
the doctrine is extended to less obvious cases. Sometimes we seem to
get this right, and sometimes we very clearly don't.

My point is that the problem of censorship is never simple. I
agree with Theall that vigilance is always necessary.

Editorial control is a related issue, not the same issue. The
editor of a journal or newsletter can be expected to include
material relevant to the aim of the publication and to exclude
other things as irrelevant. He or she may reject poorly written
articles, and must sometimes for the sake of the publication
exclude things likely to result in serious trouble, such as
insults or other libelous matter.

Now Humanist is not a publication in the usual sense, but it has
always tended in that direction, away from the verbal free-for-
all so often characteristic of newsgroups towards a forum for
mindful discussion and useful exchange of information. Those who
want the electronic free-for-all are certainly free to have it,
providing they put in the work required to set up and maintain
the discussion group, but as editor of Humanist I continue to
think that this is not the place. My role, as I interpret it, is
to facilitate the best possible forum for computing humanists
wherever e-mail reaches. Sometimes this means not publishing
material that might needlessly derail a particular discussion,
insult some of the membership, or even lead to the disintegration
of the group. With a group of this size and diversity of
nationalities, such threats are not imaginary; indeed, all three
have materialized at various times in the last two years.

The joke to which Theall refers I eliminated because I saw no
purpose in publishing it, other than to insult two of our
constituent groups. Matters of principle are important, I agree,
but citing a principle can falsely elevate a cheap joke. Is it
not true that all of us censor our remarks every day, figuring
that to speak the "truth" may not be worth the consequences --
which may include obscuring a greater truth?

Let someone show that the areopagitic Milton is not in principle
a good example for us all to follow.

Willard McCarty