Discussions of censorship rarely occur without someone citing the old adage, “I might disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While it is commendable to champion the rights of others, even those with opposing views, it shouldn’t be assumed that there should be absolutely no limitations on what individuals can express in the public arena.
Though some may initially consider this an infringement on the basic principle of freedom of speech, it is worth noting that even the most ardent Libertarian free-speech advocates reject the idea that people should be able to say absolutely anything they want to without consequence. Take, for instance, defamation laws that prevent libel, or copyright legislation that prohibit the publishing of stolen or plagiarised content.
Consequently, we shouldn’t imagine that all expression is protected as “free speech.” Speech can violate an individual’s right not to be robbed. Victims of libel, defamation, or slander suffer from a loss of reputation, potentially leading to financial damages, while victims of plagiarism are robbed of the credit or financial benefits of stolen labor. As such, justice should always demand restitution for the wronged from the hand of the wrong-doer.
This is not to say such laws are designed merely to infringe on liberty, but rather, they are to protect the liberty and rights of all potential victims.
Herein lies the distinction between liberty and anarchy: Liberty is restrained by law, while anarchy is inherently lawless. Liberty is the freedom to do what is good unhindered, anarchy is to live without the restraints of immediate social or legal penalties for doing bad.
Now, someone might say, isn’t this just the “cancel-everything-I hate” mindset infecting today’s culture? No, our point of contention lies not in whether bad things ought to be penalised, but how we determine what things ought to be considered “bad” and deserving of punishment. It’s not whether, but which. Not whether expression is restricted, but which expression will be restricted and on what basis?
Unless we’re going to embrace anarchy, we all draw the line somewhere. But why do we draw it where we do? Is it just reputation-theft, or should other expressions detrimental to society also be prohibited and censored? What about other immoral expressions, such as pornography?
This issue came up recently in Australia after a major store decided to remove a graphic children’s sex education book from its shelves following online criticism. While many applauded the move, some accused the book’s critics of violating freedom of expression by demanding its removal.
One Libertarian MP referred to those opposing the book’s contents as “book burners,” accusing them of “spitting in the face of parental rights.”
“Parents decide what is appropriate for their children, not the Government, not activists,” he argued.
But is this the approach we ought to take in our effort to secure freedom of expression? Do we, as some have argued, legally protect the bad to ensure overreaching governments don’t criminalise the good? Should our commitment to freedom of speech extend to pornographic content?
In his brilliant, short book, Law & Liberty, R.J. Rushdoony tackles this issue, answering the question of whether censoring pornographic material was a violation of rights. Though he speaks within an American context, the principles advocated are universal. The following excerpt is well-worth the read.
In Chapter 3, Rushdoony writes:
The issue of legislation governing pornography is becoming a major debate on the American scene. Shall legislation be further framed to abolish pornography, or does such legislation become censorship and a violation of civil rights?
Before analyzing the issue, let us examine the arguments for and against. In California, for example, the CLEAN Initiative, in 1966 Proposition 16 on the ballot, was one campaign among many to combat pornography. The advocates of CLEAN called attention to the fact that pornography in the United States has been a two billion dollar business annually. The publishers of pornography openly solicit manuscripts emphasizing perversions and hard-core pornography. Prosecution of avowedly pornographic works is difficult or impossible because existing laws are too weak. District attorneys do not initiate prosecutions, because the present law is inadequate to secure convictions. It is held that, to combat both pornography and its products, criminality and venereal disease, new laws are necessary.
Not so, the opponents argued. There is no necessary connection, it is claimed, between pornography and criminality, between pornography and immorality. Moreover, even if it were proven that such a connection exists, it would be wrong to pass laws against pornography, because such laws would introduce a greater evil, censorship and the loss of liberty. We are told that if pornography is the price we must pay for liberty, then we must be prepared to pay it. Liberty is too basic to the life of man to be sacrificed for any other factor. A lesser good cannot be sacrificed for the greater and basic good. We are against pornography, many argue, but we are even more emphatically against censorship and against any and every attack on liberty.
We can, as we assess these two conflicting positions, appreciate both a concern for moral standards and also a concern for liberty. The argument concerned with liberty is an important one, but it must be intelligently used. And what is liberty? Can it be limited, or is true liberty only unlimited liberty?
Liberty is defined by the dictionary as “The state of being exempt from the domination of others or from restricting circumstances.” But this definition, like all others, presents problems. After all, who is free from the domination of others, and free from restricting circumstances? We all have some domination to face: a husband, even a wife, parents, employers, superior officers, tax collectors, the various forms of government, and so on. And, supremely, we are all under the dominion and domination of God. And who is ever exempt from restricting circumstances? After all, your income is a restriction on your liberty: you can spend so much and no more. Having a family is a restricting circumstance: it definitively limits your liberty. The necessity of working is also a restriction on our liberty, as is every other circumstance in our life. Thus, according to this definition, only God is absolutely free, because only God is “exempt from the domination of others and from restricting circumstances.” If we look to other dictionary definitions, we are not much better off. Another reads that liberty is “The power of voluntary choice; freedom from necessity.” But who is ever free from necessity in this life? The point, I think, is clear: no such thing as absolute or unlimited liberty is possible or good.
More than that, unlimited liberty for man is destructive of liberty itself. Can we give any man the unlimited liberty to do as he pleases? Can a man rob whenever he sees fit, kill at will, lie as he wishes, and generally be a law unto himself? If we permitted this, soon no one would have any liberty. The result would be only anarchy. Man’s total liberty is always anarchy, and anarchy is the death of both law and liberty. Unless every man’s liberty is limited by law, no liberty is possible for any man. The criminal law and the civil law impose mutual limitations on all of us in order to provide the maximum liberty for all of us.
As a result, we must be aware of those who talk about defending liberty when they actually want to promote anarchy. When we are told that there can be no laws against pornography without endangering liberty, we must challenge their claim to be interested in liberty. There is no area where freedom is unlimited. Take freedom of speech, for example: no man has a right to slander others, nor do our laws allow him the liberty to do so at will. Neither do we allow any man the liberty to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Freedom of speech does not give any man the right to walk onto the floor of Congress and speak his mind. His liberty is limited not only as to where he can say it but also as to what he says. This does not mean that I lack freedom to speak my mind, if it be done decently and in order.
Freedom of press means the liberty to publish, but it does not mean liberty to publish libelous statements, nor does it mean that any man can demand that his freedom of press be subsidized to enable him to publish. A man has the liberty to publish if he provides the cost of publication or interests a publisher in doing so. Moreover, the contents of what is published are also subject to limitations. Libel has already been cited. No man has the right, or liberty to publish another man’s property, to publish stolen or copyrighted material. Again, no man has the right or liberty to publish materials violating the privacy of others. There are all kinds of legitimate and necessary restrictions on every kind of liberty man has, and these are necessary for the maintenance of liberty, because liberty cannot be equated with anarchy.
One of the necessary limitations on liberty is the suppression of pornography. Certainly mistakes have sometimes been made here, but they have also been made with reference to laws governing libel, privacy, slander, treason, crime, and every limitation on liberty. Neither man nor his laws are perfect, nor will they ever be in this life. The alternative to perfection is not anarchy; it is a realistic and working use of laws to further both human liberty and law.
One of the basic premises of the American system, and a basic article of Christian faith, is that man’s liberty is under law. The purpose of law in the United States, has, historically, been to further liberty by law. Basic to all moral anarchism is the insistence that liberty can be gained only by freedom from law. From the beatniks and hippies to the student left and civil disobedience agitators, this belief in liberty as freedom from law runs deep. To prove that they are free, these immature and perverse minds insist on breaking some laws to demonstrate that they are free men. But moral anarchy is always the prelude to statist tyranny, and this vaunted freedom from law ends always in a freedom from liberty!
Liberty, then, is under law and it requires careful and conscientious legislation to maintain the social structure in that state of law which best promotes liberty. Limited liberty is the only kind of liberty possible to man. To dream of more is to endanger liberty itself.
The Rev. John Cotton, Puritan divine, wrote in the earliest days of New England, “It is necessary that all power on earth be limited.” This premise became basic to all colonial government and to the United States. The restoration of true liberty requires the restoration of true law. It is a dangerous and totally false idea that freedom means an escape from law; this can be true only if the escape is from some such system as communism, and communism is not true law but tyranny.
To oppose in the name of liberty legislation against pornography is thus to favor anarchy rather than liberty. The basic premise of American law calls for liberty of speech and freedom of press, subject to the necessary restrictions of law and order. The purpose of current legislation proposals concerning pornography is not the destruction of liberty but its furtherance. It is a destruction of the freedom of press if libel is made legal, if stealing copyrighted materials is made permissible, and if violations of privacy are left ungoverned. The press then becomes a tyrant and a menace; it is out of control; it can invade your home, steal your writings, and also lie about you.
Pornography similarly is destructive of social order and of liberty. It is an insistence on the so-called right of moral anarchy, and, since its basic premise is anarchy, it brings anarchy also to every realm. Liberty goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. The laws limiting freedom of speech and freedom of press are laws requiring responsibility. Responsibility and liberty reinforce and strengthen each other. But pornography demands a world of moral anarchy, a world in which anything and everything goes, especially if it is perverted. As a matter of plain fact, the pornographer is hostile to law and order and to Christian morality. Being committed to moral anarchy, this is necessarily so. Being irresponsible, he is at war with the world of moral responsibility.
The defense of pornography on the ground of liberty, of freedom of press, is a false one, because the essence of pornography is dedicated moral irresponsibility, and this moral anarchism is an enemy of liberty under law. Pornography denies the very concept of law; it believes in a world without law and is dedicated to creating it. It must destroy liberty under law in order to usher in anarchy and a world without law.
The defense of our historic American system of liberty under law requires then that we wage war against pornography, because pornography is a major enemy to liberty. The opponents of pornography are therefore no threat to liberty. Rather, they are its friends and defenders. Under the cloak and name of liberty, the pornographers are out to destroy liberty. The real champions of liberty are in every age hostile to pornography.R.J. Rushdoony, Law & Liberty, chapter 3, ‘Liberty: Limited or Unlimited?’
You can read or purchase a copy of Rushdoony’s Law & Liberty by visiting the Chalcedon Foundation.