Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth

Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth

Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth

Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth


From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Internet filters to the v-chip, censorship exercised on behalf of children and adolescents is often based on the assumption that they must be protected from "indecent" information that might harm their development-whether in art, in literature, or on a Web site. But where does this assumption come from, and is it true?

In Not in Front of the Children, Marjorie Heins explores the fascinating history of "indecency" laws and other restrictions aimed at protecting youth. From Plato's argument for rigid censorship, through Victorian laws aimed at repressing libidinous thoughts, to contemporary battles over sex education in public schools and violence in the media, Heins guides us through what became, and remains, an ideological minefield. With fascinating examples drawn from around the globe, she suggests that the "harm to minors" argument rests on shaky foundations.


March 2007: A Connecticut high school principal has just cancelled the performance of a student-composed theater piece about the war in Iraq. The students had already rewritten the script in response to administration concerns, removing graphic violence and “some things that reflect poorly on the Bush administration.” But the principal still disapproved.

Barely a week before this story broke, the Supreme Court heard argument in a case involving a different sort of youthful expression. Alaska student Joseph Frederick had unfurled a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” on a public sidewalk across from his school one snowy day in 2002 as the Olympic Torch Relay passed by. The principal punished Frederick for displaying a sign that she felt undermined the school's anti-drug message. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school's attorney argued that administrators should have authority to censor any student speech that contradicts official policy.

Free speech—and free access to ideas—for children and teenagers are always hotly contested issues. Admittedly, not all the controversies involve matters as weighty as war or drug policy. But sex and fantasy violence—the more frequent concerns of those who would censor youth—also have a political dimension. With all of these pressing social issues, the stakes for children and adolescents are high. It is a good time for a new edition of Not in Front of the Children.

In the pages that follow, I update several of the stories told in the book, and conclude with a word about the understandable concerns of parents in today's mass media culture.

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