Conservatism accepts that some speech must be censored

Soon after the 18-century lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson compiled the first dictionary of the English language, he received visits from many prominent groups at his Fleet Street home to congratulate him upon the achievement. One such delegation was said to represent the respectable ladies of London.

“Dr. Johnson,” they said. “We are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.”

“Ladies,” Johnson replied. “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”

When the late Christopher Hitchens recounted that story during a 2007 lecture opposing censorship, he was getting at this: there’s something a bit peculiar about one adult using the power of government to limit what another adult writes, reads, or in the modern sense, watches.

The human instinct to censor goes far beyond harmless “indecent or obscene” words, of course, and stretches to cover nearly all forms of human thought: artistic, political, and especially religious.

Censorship abounds globally and is strongly accepted, even popular, in most societies, even in the West. Not so much in the United States, though. We tend to believe that we’re grown-up enough to decide for ourselves what to read and watch, except for those who haven’t, in fact, grown up.

Here, we believe that children are the only ones who should be protected from certain aspects of free speech until they can discern its usage for themselves as mature, or at least legal, adults. Even someone as zealous for the First Amendment as Hitchens strongly believed that adult magazine should be covered and kept behind the counter, away from curious young eyes.

That’s why when a minor walks into a convenience store in Alabama and tries to buy a pornographic magazine, he’ll be turned away. But if that same kid walks across the street to another store and tries to buy a smartphone or a cheap tablet – with its unfettered access to free internet pornography – he’ll walk away with the product. No questions asked.

That’s just how it is, but should it remain that way?

State Rep. Jack Williams doesn’t think so. The Republican legislator from Vestavia Hills recently introduce a bill that would require retailers to ensure all products that have internet access – smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. – come equipped with a filter that blocks pornography. Adult customers would need to request the filter to be deactivated and pay a $20 fee, which would go into a fund to support victims of human trafficking. Retailers would be forbidden from removing the filter on a product sold to a minor.

Some people laugh about this type of concern, thinking that pornography is harmless. They weren’t messed up by reading their older brother’s dirty magazines, they may think, so this generation is going to be fine.

Wrong. Things have totally changed. The heavy doses of internet pornography that are being heaped upon our nation’s children is actually rewiring how their brains and bodies respond to sex. Young men are having serious problems, from increased rates of erectile dysfunction to low libido. Go ahead and laugh, but the research is out there for anyone who cares to learn.

Still, there is great doubt that such a bill could pass, but Williams said it “gets a conversation started” about how we can deal with this complex issue.

Some conservatives would probably balk at the burden placed on businesses, while others might complain about the burden placed on the consumer. Then there are the real concerns about too much censorship.

Williams’ bill is probably unworkable, but the thinking conservative knows this: while freedom is normally paramount, a wise society will place “prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions,” as Russell Kirk wrote.

This conservative principle is normally associated with our constitution’s checks and balances against power, but it also reaches into the community, and even to the individual. As Kirk taught, for a society to prosper, there must be a healthy tension between freedom and order.

In other words, when a freedom has become unreasonably harmful – and giving children unfettered access to internet pornography is unquestionably harmful – then it might be time to restrain that freedom, especially when it’s being irresponsibly given to children to manage.