Freedom of expression is greatly valued in the Western world, yet it is also a subject of unending controversy. Should pornography be punished or tolerated? What about hate speech, blasphemy, and media violence? My course, “Free Expression and the Media: Policy and Law,” explores these questions in the context of the history of censorship, with emphasis on the challenges of regulation in an age of instant global communication.
The course is largely a product of my experience as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1980s and 90s. I was a staff lawyer at the ACLU of Massachusetts in the 80s, and then began the organization’s Arts Censorship Project in 1991, at the height of the American “culture wars.” It was a time when politicians were attacking the national arts funding agency for supporting “indecent” and “blasphemous” art work, prosecutors were bringing charges against a music group and an art museum for the crime of obscenity, and the U.S. Congress was passing laws to control speech on the Internet that was considered “harmful to minors.”
This assumption that adolescents and children must be shielded from certain information or ideas was, I discovered, a frequent justification for censorship. Ultimately, I left the ACLU to research and write Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. The book traces the legal and social history of the “harm to minors” assumption, and examines the evidence behind contemporary claims of adverse effects from sexual or violent content. After finishing the book in 2001, I began the Free Expression Policy Project (www.fepproject.org), which provides information and analysis on a variety of free-speech issues, from Internet filters to media violence to copyright law.
I developed a course on censorship for the University of California, San Diego in 2008. I reprised the course, with modifications, at New York University in the fall of 2009. For AUP, I have further revised the course to give it a more international perspective. In addition to rulings by courts in the US, the UK, and Canada, the class will read decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, will compare free-expression provisions of different international covenants, will study sociological and historical materials on the origins of and justifications for today’s censorship laws, and will evaluate media-regulation schemes in different countries.
In this highly contested area of law and policy, there are powerful competing arguments. Much depends on different cultures and historical experiences. Thus, prohibition of anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial is considered a less compelling priority in the US than in Europe, where the Holocaust occurred. I see the course as an opportunity for critical debate, careful analysis, and dialog, not the propagation of any particular view. I feel privileged to be teaching here as a visiting professor and am looking forward to both sharing my knowledge with AUP’s fascinating body of international students and learning from their diverse viewpoints and experiences.
Marjorie Heins was a visiting professor last semester from New York University. She is a founder of the Free Expression Policy Project, a U.S. based organization dedicated to exploring challenges to free expression including censorship, media regulation, and intellectual property laws.