Feminist Censors Endanger Speech and Women's Rights

By Sableman, Mark | St. Louis Journalism Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Feminist Censors Endanger Speech and Women's Rights


Sableman, Mark, St. Louis Journalism Review


Comstockery.

Bowdlerizing.

And now, MacDworkinism.

Something about sex in print seems to bring out the censor in the strangest people ... and, indirectly, to enrich the language with new words for crusades of extremist paranoia.

The activities of Dr. Thomas Bowdler, the English editor who around 1820 rewrote Shakespeare and the Bible to delete their objectionable passages, gave our language its word for arbitrary expurgation, bowdlerize. The crusades of Anthony Comstock, the man whose raised eyebrows had the power to prevent booksellers from handling many books and magazines in nineteenth century America, gave us Comstockery, a synonym for overzealous censorship.

A century after Bowdler and Comstock, we now confront a new set of censorship advocates, as fresh, committed -- and extreme -- as Bowdler and Comstock were in their days. The new censors-to-be are author Andrea Dworkin and law professor Catharine MacKinnon, the proud and strident exponents of an allegedly feminist pro-censorship philosophy sometimes disparagingly dubbed MacDworkinism. Their claim is that a very broad range of literary and artistic content, which they view as demeaning women, can and should be outlawed.

MacKinnon, Dworkin and their supporters characterize the matters to which they object as "pornography," but the targets of their theory are really broader than what most people view as pornography. Not unlike the last century's Comstock crusades, their movement seeks to significantly limit a broad range of publications touching on human sexuality.

The MacKinnon-Dworkin viewpoint, extreme as it is, cannot be easily brushed aside, for several reasons:

* MacKinnon and Dworkin are feminists who base their philosophy on protection of women. This makes their viewpoint attractive to many women, and to liberals who otherwise might reject a pro-censorship position.

* The MacKinnon-Dworkin position feeds on many persons' natural discomfort with published portrayals of sex and sexuality.

* The feminist pro-censorship position appears to provide answers and solutions to some basic problems in society, as it ascribes sexual inequality, family problems, crime, and domestic violence to a broad range of objectionable literature. It is a "blame the messenger" theory, but a sophisticated one.

In America the usual test of a creative legal theory is simple: Will the courts accept it? Here the answer so far is a clear no: the courts have not bought MacDworkinism. When the city of Indianapolis in 1984 adopted a MacKinnon-drafted ordinance equating pornography with sex discrimination, the ordinance was challenged by book publishers and librarians, and promptly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. In other tests in this country, the MacKinnon-Dworkin theories have been rejected. First Amendment rules are clear -- speech that falls outside the narrow category of legal obscenity cannot be banned.

But do our traditional First Amendment arguments really provide a persuassive answer to this new theory? The MacKinnon-Dworkin theory may be antithetical to the First Amendment, but is it wrong? Judicial rulings have usually skirted this key policy issue. As long as this question remains unanswered, the MacKinnon-Dworkin theory retains its potential appeal to public opinion, and hence presents a serious threat to free expression.

This is where Nadine Strossen comes in. Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a feminist and constitutional scholar of unquestioned standing. In her book, "Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Right," she takes on MacKinnon and Dworkin both as a free speech advocate and as a feminist. She directly addresses the legal, social and feminist policy questions raised by MacDworkinism, and does not skirt the important underlying issue of the role of sexuality, and portrayals of it, in the lives of women and men. …

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