Freedom of expression and censorship
Yesterday, the New York Times’s Clyde Haberman wrote a column that took as its jumping-off point a recent controversy over an anti-abortion billboard in NYC.
A Texas group called Life Always…bought billboard space in SoHo to deliver an anti-abortion message rooted in recent statistics from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They showed that in 2009, 41 percent of all pregnancies here ended in abortion. The abortion rate for black women was even higher, almost 60 percent.
Up went the billboard on a building at the corner of Avenue of the Americas and Watts Street. It showed a black girl with these words above her head: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”
Not surprisingly, the billboard provoked controversy, and it was removed not long after it went up. You can see a picture of it alongside Haberman’s column. I’m not sure what I think of it myself. The intersection of race and abortion is a touchy subject that has not always been handled with care. But setting that context aside, I wouldn’t say it’s “racist” to encourage African-Americans in particular to carry their babies to term. (As Haberman notes, “racial and racist are not one and the same.”) It’s certainly provocative, maybe enough to backfire — which is my main concern with any in-your-face prolife activism: Is this really about changing people’s minds on abortion, or is it designed to accomplish something less productive? In this case, the potential for actually changing minds seems to be there. Still, I probably wouldn’t have funded it. (Not that it’s an option.)
I appreciate Haberman’s evenhanded assessment of the billboard. But I am also intrigued by the larger point he makes:
This plain act of censorship was not isolated. Rather, it fit into an established New York pattern of squelching unpopular opinions. Examples over the past decade abound.
I wonder if this really is a “New York pattern” — that is, unique to the city. He certainly has a number of local examples, and it’s not surprising that a NYC columnist would focus locally. But does it happen in New York in a way it doesn’t happen elsewhere? (We do see an awful lot of advertising!)
I’m also not sure how strongly I feel about this “impulse to censor” in general. There are a lot of in-poor-taste advertisements I’d rather not have to see — or have to explain to a child riding the subway with me. Whether I want them to be forcibly removed is another question, but I wouldn’t grieve if they did disappear. Whether an advertiser’s succumbing voluntarily to public pressure is “censorship” is another question again.
On a related note, today the Times reports that the Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 1, that “the First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals.” That strikes me as a good ruling, much as I’d like to see the “Westboro Baptist Church” and its nasty signs disappear. What I really want is for them to go away of their own volition. Barring that, I’d love for the rest of us to stop taking their bait — they’re not even good at being provocative, for heaven’s sake. I think Chief Justice Roberts is giving them far too much credit when he says (in his opinion), “The issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import.” (Which is not to suggest that Roberts defended the message.) I didn’t even realize they had highlighted “scandals involving the Catholic clergy” — probably because I’ve been trying so hard to deny this small group of people the attention they so plainly crave. I can’t see that they have any serious commitment to any issue other than getting attention for their nastiness. They’re also unlikely to change course in the face of public pressure, obviously, since offending is basically the point. So I can see why that leaves people anxious to use the force of law to make them go away. But it doesn’t mean they should be able to.