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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Yesterday’s and Today’s Attacks on Government Censorship

Recently many popular websites went black to fight the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills. Fighting censorship, however, is nothing new. Today’s document is a short story in Newsweek from August 5, 1948, that tells of the role Newsweek book editor Karl Schriftgiesser played in H. L. Mencken’s 1926 arrest for selling a banned issue of his magazine, The American Mercury. From the late nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century written works, movies, and plays could be censored in Boston for containing “objectionable” content. Unlike the recent Internet blackout, Mencken’s and Schriftgiesser’s protest had little effect on the censorship policies.

There are of course differences in between the proposed Internet bills and the “banned-in-Boston” law. In Boston officials were legislating morality, while the stated purpose of SOPA and PIPA is geared toward protection of intellectual property. There are, however, two major similarities. Both attempt to stop the free flow of ideas. Subjectively we are better off if we can read the works and information that we want, but a few individuals want to erect barriers to people’s access. Which leads to the second similarity: the use of the State to impose such censorship.

The free flow of ideas has played a large part in our prosperity. Government censorship inhibits our ability to reap the rewards from the information age. Even if you find certain content questionable or believe ideas are intellectual property (though I find it hard to call something with no scarcity “property”), we should question the use of the State to stop the flow of these ideas. It might just be a Pandora’s box that could unleash more trouble than even the defenders of copyright wish.

Download the Newsweek story of H. L. Mencken’s censorship protest here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.