editing and censoring, cont. (138)

Wed, 22 Mar 89 20:43:45 EST

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 759. Wednesday, 22 Mar 1989.

(1) Date: 21 March 1989 17:25:48 CST (92 lines)
From: "Michael Sperberg-McQueen 312 996-2477 -2981" <U35395@UICVM>
Subject: publication and censorship

(2) Date: 22 March 1989 (26 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: editorial policy

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 21 March 1989 17:25:48 CST
From: "Michael Sperberg-McQueen 312 996-2477 -2981" <U35395@UICVM>
Subject: publication and censorship

Can we please get serious here? "Freedom of the press" does not mean my
right to be published -- it means my right to publish what I choose to
publish. Stanford University has every right, it seems to me, to
decide, on the basis of their contents, that certain news groups or
lists do not contain material of a kind that Stanford wishes to devote
its disk space and CPU cycles to. Or conversely that they contain
material Stanford wishes specifically not to have anything to do with.
I don't recall reading that Stanford was going to forbid its students in
search of amusement, let alone its anthropologists studying contemporary
mores, to use bulletin boards or joke lists. So frankly I can't see
what in Stanford's decision can be interpreted as an attempt to
determine "what is or is not appropriate for researchers in the
humanities and social sciences to access", in Donald Theall's phrase.
It *is* an attempt to determine what is or is not appropriate for a
university computer center to assist in disseminating.

One might argue that Stanford made the wrong decision, that it really is
appropriate, after all, to disseminate the material. One can't, it
seems to me, usefully argue that Stanford had no decision to make. We
*always* are responsible for our actions, and for our inactions.
Computer centers and universities *always* are deciding what is and is
not appropriate for a university computer center to do: without such
decisions we cannot possibly fulfill our responsibilities to the
university communities whose teaching and research we support, or to
those taxpayers or donors whose funds go to support our activities. Is
it an appropriate use of our funds to buy this new software package, or
should we use the money to buy more disk packs instead? Can we afford
to upgrade VM? Can we afford not to? We are given stewardship of
finite resources, sometimes at the very direct expense of others who
could have used the money, -- can anyone seriously suggest that we have
no responsibility for what happens to those resources?

There is a fairly significant difference, worth keeping in mind, between
declining to support some exercise of free speech with money, resources,
or prestige, and seeking judicial or vigilante reprisals against the
speaker. The latter, it seems to me, is censorship, because it not only
bars a given arena to some speech or activity but attempts to bar all
possible arenas to it. The former is a daily affair in any institution
with finite resources (so far, in my experience, that's all of them), as
well as in any individual's life. It seems to me to be not "censorship"
but simple moral responsibility, as well as inalienable right.
(Otherwise, how will we all plead to the charge that we are censoring
the words of everyone in the world whom we do *not* quote in extenso in
our postings to Humanist?) (Or more seriously, the grocers whose
Israeli produce we buy or do not buy?)

Stanford has been given stewardship of a substantial endowment by donors
who hoped their gifts would be used for education and the cultivation of
learning. The administrators of that trust have both the right and the
duty to use it for its intended purposes, and not to pay for the
propagation of racist jokes or other uncivil discourse. Yes, that means
they are in the uncomfortable position of having to judge whether jokes
are racist or not, whether discourse is civil or not. It does not mean
their judgement is infallible, only that they must use it. So what else
is new? Welcome to the real world. Stanford does have certain
responsibilities to its students, including the responsibility to
attempt to provide an environment in which they do not feel their
intrinsic worth constantly under attack. On the whole, I think that
responsibility outweighs their responsibility to provide disk space for
jokes submitted by anyone on the net.


Similarly, Willard has been given the stewardship of a resource of great
potential for humanistic scholarship, and I would like to thank him
publicly for the work he does to preserve that resource. That includes
his efforts to enforce certain minimal standards of civility.
Fortunately, he does not often need to do much in that line, since our
members appear on the whole a fairly civil lot, more prone to
rambunctiousness than to serious offense-giving. When he does face the
hard choices we sometimes confront him with, I think he does it better
than anyone dare hope: with humility, and honesty, and good cheer.

And (what may be more important) with good judgement. I haven't seen
the joke in question, and I don't want to. Can people be serious in
suggesting they want it published here? If we start publishing
off-color jokes in Humanist on the grounds that they are germane to this
issue, I'm going to find a lot less pleasure in this forum. My vote is
with Willard on this one: anyone who wants to see the joke can write
for back copies of the San Jose Mercury or subscribe to the joke list
whence it emerged.

-Michael Sperberg-McQueen
University of Illinois at Chicago

P.S. The opinions expressed are my own, not those of the University of
Illinois, which would no doubt have preferred that I spend the afternoon
working on the library automation system.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 22 March 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: editorial policy

Dear Colleagues:

In the light of recent events on Humanist, I have been asked for a
statement of editorial policy. I plan to respond to this quite
reasonable request within the next few days. Meanwhile, please be
assured that as editor I do nothing in secret. I make a distinction,
however, between secretly deleting a message, without informing the
contributor, and privately telling him or her that I do not intend to
publish it. The aspersion of shame, therefore, I think to be entirely

It may be that Humanist has become too small for the range of topics
that certain of its members wish to discuss. I would like to suggest
that those Humanists who find this group intellectually or emotionally
claustrophobic start up another discussion group more suitable to their
predilections. It seems inevitable that the rapidly growing interest in
electronic communication among humanists should result in the
proliferation of groups. I will be happy to lend a hand to anyone who
wishes to begin a ListServ discussion.

Willard McCarty