A closely argued brief for free speech.
Heins’s case relies on precedent and law, but her arguments take place in a sealed intellectual chamber isolated from the real and messy world. She begins with Plato, who, concerned that exposure to erotic literature would lead the young to immoral behavior, counseled censorship. She then compares him to Aristotle, who argued that viewing violent and graphic scenes provided a necessary catharsis. The tension between these two approaches informs the argument to this day, but now the situation is exacerbated by children’s exposure to the Internet and television. Arguing that it was only in the 17th century that Western society began to show much apparent concern about the moral health of the young, the author attempts to trace the change in attitudes towards adolescent vice (beginning with masturbation, which became a 19th-century obsession). She describes how the classics, including Shakespeare, were bowdlerized; how Andrew Comstock got Congress to pass a seminal obscenity law in 1873; the banning of Joyce’s Ulysses; and the paradoxical move away from censorship in the 1950s (when the Kinsey Report was published and hitherto taboo subjects became more freely discussed). By the 1980s the tension between advocates of free speech and those concerned with protecting youth led to greater calls for censorship, calls that increased in the 1990s with demands for V-chips and filters. Heins argues that there are no conclusive studies proving that access to sexual and violent material is harmful, but she fails to address the understandable concerns of contemporary parents who must raise children in a world where graphic sexual and violent images are readily accessible.
A solid if incomplete contribution to a currently hot debate.