Menu

Censorship: Hate literature

Posted on

Summary

“Hate literature” represents only one form among many taken by ideas alleged to be so dangerous, indecent, ugly, harmful, or offensive as to require suppression. The argument against this reaction is to be found in our commitment to democratic government and an understanding of the role that free speech and a free press play in such a system.

Briefly, a politically free, self-governing people can rightly authorize its governments to do many things, often restrictive things, in its name. But it cannot authorize its governments to serve as a censor. To do so, even in one area, would thereby diminish the people’s self-governing capacity and sender them less fit for their civic role. To have democratic choice it is a basic requirement that we have the freedom to express and bear all the ideas and doctrines; without this, we cannot claim to be free.

Other, less basic, arguments against censorship of “hate literature” are these. First, it would be impossible to define the concept legally in such a way as to obtain agreement from many, far less all, members of a community. Secondly, much of the best literature dealing with social, economic and political matters is often highly critical of individuals and institutions, and therefore decidedly offensive to some. Thirdly, the very existence of “hate literature” implies sources of hate that run very deep in human nature end in society. It is naive to think that this hatred can be eradicated simply by cutting off its written or vocal expression. It is not only naive, but dangerous to think so, for the censors would not only damage our democratic system, but would also hide the most harmless visible symptom of a serious social problem which should be recognized and treated.

The suggestion that “hate literature” represents a libel directed at a group rather than an individual is not clearly an apt analogy. And, even if it were, it does not follow that legislative steps should be taken to suppress it. The arguments already presented against suppression remain unaltered.

Hate literature

The major, but not sole, argument against proposals to suppress the dissemination of “hate literature” is once again found in a commitment to democratic government and in an understanding of the essential role which free speech end press pity in such a system.

“Hate literature” represents only one form among many taken by ideas alleged to be so dangerous, indecent, ugly, harmful, or offensive, either in their form or content, as to require suppression. The temptation to suppress ideas alleged to be of that character is always very great; “hate literature” provides an even greater and perhaps more understandable temptation because it presents itself to us as so manifestly false, irresponsible, malicious, and extreme as to seem to lie beyond any free press protection. Thus many people, otherwise among the staunchest supporters of civil liberty, are led to argue that this printed material ought properly to be suppressed, and legislation to accomplish that end should be enacted. Such suggestions have been heard recently in Canada.

Reasonable though such suggestions may sound it should be remembered that while a politically free, self-governing people can rightly authorize its governmental tribunals and agents to do many things in its name including, of course, the prohibition of many acts deemed harmful, it can never rightly authorize its governmental tribunals and agents to serve as censor or screen for the citizens’ minds. To authorize that, even in one area, thereby diminishes the people’s self-governing capacity and renders them less fit for their civic role. Any such authorizations, moreover, provides the principle and the precedent by which the procedure may be extended in order to suppress other expressions of hatred, not only “hate”, ideas.

To the degree politically free people abdicate their sovereign, collective right to determine for themselves which ideas they shall hear or read, which proposed policies they shall accept or reject, which doctrines they shall advocate or deny—to that degree they have hedged their democratic commitment, giving evidence thereby of a failure of nerve. A people’s political freedom is not divisible; especially is it not divisible into the “dangerous” and “non-dangerous”, even less is it divisible into the “offensive” and “non-offensive”. As has been said before, a free people chooses to meet its dangers with its eyes wide open, and insists therefore chat all ideas and doctrines shall be heard, no matter how detested or detestable—not out of a sense of charity or toleration, but simply because that is what is required by freedom. That’s what it means to be free.

There are, however, several, more specific arguments to be levelled against proposals to suppress “hate literature”. One of these arguments, not decisive in itself, concerns the extreme difficulty encountered in framing and administering legislation aimed at curbing it. “Hate literature” does not appear before us so labelled. How, therefore, is it to be defined and recognized? By form? content? tone? intent? truth or falsity? advocacy? No doubt those who propose curbs on it understand that all these together will provide the signs by which we shall recognize the ugly and harmful thing to be curbed. Perhaps among some of us there is fairly clear agreement as to what such literature comprises and how it is recognized. But there is no reason to believe that many, much less all members of the community would share in that agreement.

A large amount of literature, indeed much of the best literature dealing with social, economic and political matters is quite properly highly critical of institutions and groups. Moreover, such literature usually provokes deep resentment from those criticized. That is its effect, if not its intent. Furthermore, the wisdom, propriety and relevance, as well as the truth, of such works are questions on which even men of good will differ in judgment. In making their assessments men are prone to substitute one or several of those standards or others for the appropriate ones, resentment often leading them to do so unknowingly.

In that awkward and persisting state of affairs it would be only too easy and tempting for the suppressive legislation to be put to work curbing ideas which are indeed critical and provocative, and which are for that reason offensive to powerful institutions and groups within the community, but which are for these purposes now alleged to be dangerous. The damage thereby made possible, if not likely in other times, places and circumstances, is so great as probably to outweigh whatever benefits would be found in even the most restrained enforcement of the legislation.

A more telling criticism of proposals to suppress “hate literature” is found in the fact that the sources of such hate surely run very deep in human nature and society. Without discussing here the nature of those sources, it nonetheless seems likely that they are in their depth and type such as to make neither of the two following alternatives very sensible, yet these appear to be the alternatives:

  1. If legislation will, successfully that the disorder represented in the literature by cutting off printed material expressing it, then the disorder is so insignificant as not to warrant the legislation, granted the damage to our political principles and practices constituted by the legislation itself;
  2. If legislation will not successfully treat the disorder represented in the literature by cutting off printed material expressing it, then we have needlessly damaged our political principles and practices through the legislation itself, and we have managed thereby to hide the most effective, visible symptom of a serious social problem in our midst—an act that is very dangerous indeed.

If, as is probable, the literature expresses and reinforces the hate, but does not create it, then the problem would not appear amenable to treatment via legislation which merely suppresses its expression. More to the point, and much more welcome, would be legislation of a quite different, positive character addressed to discovering and dealing with the true sources of the problem. The significance of hate should surely not be minimized, yet suppression of its written expression is apt to lead us only to ignore it, not to eliminate it. When to that is added the other serious disadvantages cited, the case against suppression seems to us to be decisive.

One further comment: it has been suggested that “hate literature” is like a libel, but because directed at a group or institution it is not adequately covered by present provisions in the laws against libel; since like a libel, however, some legislative methods to suppress it would be in order (denial of the use of the mails, etc.).

Even if the analogy is apt, and it is not clearly so, it does not follow that we should take legislative steps to suppress “hate literature”. The arguments against suppression presented above would still apply, and with equal force.

An eminent U.S, jurist, Mr. Justice Black, has recently noted that present libel and slander laws are in some ways inconsistent with a proper view of free speech and press. He suggested they be reassessed with that in mind.