First Amendment attorney Marjorie Heins argues: obscenity laws do children more harm than good

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Marjorie Heins, a First Amendment attorney and the director of the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, has spent most of her professional life fighting censorship. Over the years, she says, she realized that she was constantly coming up against the assumption that censorship -- from obscenity laws to book banning to V-chips to Internet filters -- could be justified if the material in question presented clear "harm to minors."

"Even people in the civil liberties camp," says Heins, "were of the mind that there is a great social necessity to censor material that minors are exposed to. The debate wasn't going anywhere -- it wasn't even a debate." What, exactly, is material that causes "harm to minors"? Is it "Huckleberry Finn" or the work of Maya Angelou? Violent video games or R-rated movies? Graphic sexual content or comprehensive sex education? Actually, as Heins found out, all of the above have been suppressed in the name of protecting children, despite the fact, she says, that social science has failed to provide convincing evidence that exposure to sexual or violent content has any negative impact on minors whatsoever.

Heins decided to trace the history of American obscenity laws to find the roots of the "harm to minors" argument. The result is "Not in Front of the Children: 'Indecency,' Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth," a book that chronicles the ideological and political underpinnings of censorship from Plato to the Victorians to the present day. Not only have the First Amendment rights of adults been abridged in the name of protecting the innocence of youth, Heins argues; many times, obscenity laws have actually done more harm to minors than good. Because of censorship, many children have not been equipped with the critical thinking skills necessary for living in a democratic society, she says. In some cases, minors have been denied access to information -- like comprehensive sex education -- that could literally save their lives, maintains Heins. "I would like to move the political dialogue beyond the repetitive media bashing, censorship laws, restrictions on school libraries, Internet filters," says Heins. "It's reached the point of an epidemic. It's not advancing any social purpose." [...]

Censorship did not focus on sexuality until relatively late in history. Obscenity law, which was an invention of the 19th century, grew out of a concern for youthful sexuality, specifically masturbation. You had all these appallingly cruel anti-masturbation devices and machines that were literally attached to children and adolescents at night to prevent the practice. It was made into a great taboo. Generations of children really did suffer all kinds of physical and mental harms from this repression of a natural impulse. [...] When you get right down to it, it's more of a moral or ideological, or even symbolic, argument. And what you end up with -- whether it's the Communications Decency Act or Internet filters or the V-chip -- are standards that are indecipherable. Even in the area of pornography, which most people would probably agree is not edifying for children, there is no evidence that occasional exposure will do them any actual harm.

source: Article 'Banning censorship - First Amendment attorney and author Marjorie Heins argues that obscenity laws do children more harm than good' by Amy Benfer (associate editor of Life); www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2001/06/11/heins/index.html; salon.com; 11 June 2001