THEOSOPHY, Vol. 37, No. 5, March, 1949
(Pages 208-213; Size: 16K)
(Number 54 of a 57-part series)

STUDIES IN KARMA

ASPECTS OF CENSORSHIP: II

[Part 2 of 2]

POLITICAL and social violations of the principle of free speech can be endlessly multiplied, but the basic issue is simple to formulate. Under what circumstances, if any, is censorship justifiable, and by whom may it be exercised? The theosophical philosophy, of course, rejects the externalism and inevitable dogmatism of all suppression of ideas, even as it rejects the idea that anyone -- especially an outside "God" -- can be thought capable of judging what another man shall be allowed to read, hear, think or consider in his mind. It is a hopeful sign that aligned with this philosophy, in this position, at least, are some of the most prominent educators of the country. On such men will rest the burden of maintaining traditional academic freedom in the face of a tendency among increasingly powerful and conservative boards of trustees in colleges and universities throughout the United States to terminate the contracts of professors who entertain, or are suspected of entertaining, unconventional political or social views.

The wearing of a beret, for instance, was sufficient to end the career of one professor of a midwestern college -- the hitherto-liberal Olivet College in Michigan. The case was "investigated" by Milton Mayer, who reported his findings in a recent issue of the Nation. "Professor Akeley's colleagues of twelve years at Olivet, his students, and his older acquaintances from his days as a Unitarian minister describe him variously, but always as a man of Christian character and intellectual honesty and vigor. He is apparently mildly socialistic, and even more mildly pacifist, but no one has ever heard him 'talk politics' either in or out of class." But, Mayer points out, Akeley's beret is symbolic, as is his goatee and his summer-time shorts. In the eyes of the townspeople and the college Board of Trustees, they are symbols of "whatever the devil it is that is going on at Olivet." Not only berets, goatees, and shorts are suspect, but Jews, Negroes, and "intellectuals." The secretary of the Board stated that "it's not the socialism, it's the beret" -- an admission which is more ominous and threatening to free teaching than any political witch-hunt, for it penalizes non-conformity in its most trivial form.

Alexander Meiklejohn, author of a new book on this subject, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, states the problem in its most extreme form for greatest clarity: "Are we, for example, required by the First Amendment to grant freedom of speech to those who, if they had the power, would refuse it to us?" This presents us with a question which cannot -- and under present conditions, must not -- be evaded. First, the political implications of the problem should be examined. In 1919, Chief Justice Holmes proposed his famous "Clear and Present Danger" clause, which was at that time accepted by the Court as a valid formula for testing speech activities whose freedom could legally be abridged. In subsequent years, however, this test has been found untenable by the Court, though it is still invoked in legal and political use. Writes Dr. Meiklejohn:

Congress has, it is true, both the right and the duty to prevent certain evils. And that may seem to mean that the legislators are authorized to do whatever is needed to prevent those evils. But the Constitution declares that inference to be radically false. It lists, one after another, actions which, however useful they might be in serving the general welfare, Congress is forbidden to take. Some preventions, it declares, are more evil than the evils from which they would save us. And a primary instance of this doctrine of limited powers is the First Amendment. That amendment tells us that, when dangers arise from public discussion, the evils which they threaten must be endured if the only way of avoiding them is by abridging that freedom of speech upon which the entire structure of our free Government rests.
Dr. Meiklejohn makes the same point as did Freda Kirchwey in defense of the Nation: democracy and censorship are incompatible. "The vital point," he declares, "is that, though persons may, on other grounds, be barred from speaking, no one may be barred because his views are thought to be false or dangerous, are judged to be unwise or un-American. When men govern themselves, it is they -- and no one else -- who must estimate unwisdom and unfairness and danger...."
The First Amendment, then, declares to us and to all men that Hitler's "Mein Kampf" or Lenin's "The State and Revolution" or the Communist Manifesto of Engels and Marx may be freely printed, freely sold, freely distributed, freely read, freely discussed, freely believed, freely denied, throughout the United States. ... And these conflicting views may be expressed, must be expressed, not because they are valid, but because they are relevant. To be afraid of ideas, of any ideas, is to be unfit for self-government.
The clear integrity of this statement makes its appeal to the reason and also to the sense of principled freedom which is the inheritance of the Founding Fathers. One cannot think that either Paine or Jefferson would have been party to suppression of even the most unpopular views. Who, indeed, had better cause to respect freedom of expression than Paine, who from personal experience knew that truth as well as falsehood is often ranked with the "unpopulars"?

Again, it is reported that in at least two states, Oklahoma and Ohio, the Progressive Party was kept off the ballots either by some obviously manufactured technicality or by outright suppression. This, in spite of the fact that the Communist Party, per se, is not outlawed in the United States. As a New York Times book reviewer suggested, apropos of the Un-American Activities Committee, there is, legally, no difference between the Thomas Committee's asking a Hollywood writer if he is a Communist and calling up General Eisenhower to insist that he tell them whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. Public opinion would doubtless have supported the General's refusal to answer. "Even though membership in a given party were a crime there is an old rule in law that an accused person may not be required to incriminate himself. Is a committee of Congress above such rules? One may hate Communism with all his heart and yet be affronted when an effort -- a vain and foolish effort -- is made to fight it by dictatorial methods."

Discussing the question of whether or not the Communist Party should be outlawed, Henry Steele Commager, Professor of History at Columbia University, makes the extremely relevant point that specific suppression of any seeming evil actually closes more often on the innocent, while the shrewd and experienced group at whom the suppression is directed eludes the net. Denying the Communist party a place on the ballot, for instance, is "downright naïve. It is seriously to underestimate the resourcefulness of the Communist party which can, and doubtless will, change its name, and submit itself to us, smilingly, as the Jeffersonian or the Abraham Lincoln party...."

It would, Professor Commager concludes, be unwise to outlaw the Communist party or to punish those whose only crime is membership in that party.

It is unwise because it will surely fail of its objective. It is unwise because it would be a grave departure from our traditions of law and of constitutionalism. It is unwise because it would endanger the position of other non-conformist groups, prove an entering wedge to the suppression of freedom of speech and of thought, and open the gates to the kind of despotism that is most pernicious. It is unwise because it would deny to our people and our Government the advantages of criticism which, whatever its animus, is essential to our health and prosperity.
In 1920, an eminent Harvard doctor of law, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., published a book which upheld the constitutionality -- and common sense -- of free speech, even in the face of the espionage and sedition bills which, during the first World War, manacled the nation. In 1941, Professor Chafee republished his book (which has become the "standard" text on free speech), with extensive additions, under the title of Free Speech in the United States. He propounds these questions:
Is it any longer possible to discover truth amid the clashing blares of advertisements, loud speakers, gigantic billboards, party programs, propaganda of a hundred kinds? To sift the truth from all these half-truths seems to demand a statistical investigation beyond the limits of anybody's time and money. So some modern thinkers despairingly conclude that the great mass of voters cannot be trusted to detect the fallacies in emotional arguments by Communists and so on, and hence must be prevented from hearing them....
This is not the answer Professor Chafee arrives at, however. Reason and education -- this latter "in the wide sense that includes more than schools and youngsters" -- represent the only solid refuge against the onslaughts of error. He explores the indirect effects of suppression, remarking that even granting that the public would suffer no serious loss if every communist leaflet were burned or if some prominent pacifist were imprisoned -- "as perhaps he might be under the loose language of the unprecedented federal sedition law ... [passed in 1918], for discouraging drafted men by talk about plowing every fourth boy under." Even so, he states--
my contention is that the pertinacious orators and writers who get hauled up are merely extremist spokesmen for a mass of more thoughtful and more retiring men and women, who share in varying degrees the same critical attitude toward prevailing politics and institutions. When you put the hotheads in jail, these cooler people do not get arrested -- they just keep quiet. And so we lose things they could tell us, which would be very advantageous for the future course of the nation. Once the prosecutions begin, then the hush-hush begins too. Discussion becomes one-sided and artificial. Questions that need to be threshed out do not get threshed out.
This development suggests the further thought that defense of free speech more often than not must start with the defense of unpopular speech, and if this is not defended, a gradual encroachment ensues on more and more "popular" fields. When ideas -- or people -- that do not directly affect or interest the average citizen are suppressed, the only hope for continued democracy lies in the citizen's consistent protest against such suppression. To wait until censorship blockades his own ideas and ideals is to have waited too long. Thus it was a logical insight, as well as unselfish regard for principle, which prompted Voltaire to say, "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The importance of the attitude of the people of the nation, as well as that of the Supreme Court, in maintaining the right of free speech, is stressed by Professor Chafee, who remarks that, above all, the maintenance of open discussion depends on the great body of unofficial citizens. If a community does not respect liberty for unpopular ideas, it can easily drive them underground by persistent discouragement and sneers, by ostracism, boycott, refusal to rent halls, by mobs and threats of lynching. "The law plays only a small part in either suppression or freedom. In the long run the public gets just as much freedom of speech as it really wants."

Appropriate to any consideration of the Government's frantic loyalty campaign are Professor Chafee's recommendations, made in parallel circumstances around 1941: that government is wise, he declared, which concerns itself more with becoming the kind of government which inspires loyalty than with seeking to test and compel the loyalty of its citizens.

Behind the dozens of sedition bills in Congress last session, behind teachers' oaths and compulsory flag salutes, is a desire to make our citizens loyal to their government. Loyalty is a beautiful idea, but you cannot create it by compulsion and force. ... You make men love their government and their country by giving them the kind of government and the kind of country that inspire respect and love: a country that is free and unafraid, that lets the discontented talk in order to learn the causes for their discontent and end those causes, that refuses to impel men to spy on their neighbors, that protects its citizens vigorously from harmful acts while it leaves the remedies for objectionable ideas to counterargument and time....

Let us not in our anxiety to protect ourselves from foreign tyrants imitate some of their worst acts, and sacrifice in the process of national defense the very liberties which we are defending.

Behind every attempt at censorship -- from the often-unconscious suppression by a mother who feels that her child "isn't old enough" to have his questions answered, to the suppression writ large in the imposition by State or Church on the free searching of the individual -- behind all censorship lies, first, the assumption of superiority on the part of the censor, and the further assumption that truth is in its nature finite, absolute, and capable of being possessed by the superior man. From this follows logically, in order, the conviction that, other men -- or nations, religions, races, or whatever -- being inferior, they are incapable of finding truth by their own efforts, and, unless directed, are predestined to wander into error. Then arises the conviction that this direction is a task to be undertaken by the superior person or persons for the sake, of course, of the ignorant multitude who know not what they do, even as the "God" of the Christians is conceived to be the only one ultimately capable of directing the progress of the human soul.

From such delusions of grandeur and obsession with what is considered the whole truth (though at best it is but a poor fragment of that truth) has sprung the evil possessiveness which directs the activities of institutionalized, crystallized Church and State. Wherever the beavers of reaction have dammed the waters of truth in order to construct a snug retreat for themselves, the theosophist is bound to set about with equal diligence to free the stagnant water so that it may irrigate the fields of universal striving.


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