Misunderstandings About Censorship

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times published an article entitled “Censorship Rears Its Ugly Head at Santa Monica College, Over a Play About Slavery” by Times columnist Robin Abcarian. The article provides a good opportunity to analyze the concept of censorship in the context of government-owned or government-subsidized colleges and universities. 

The theater arts department at Santa Monica College in California produced a play entitled “By the River Rivanna,” which revolved around the issue of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Abcarian reviewed the written version of the play and concluded that it was a “provocative story about a successful, Ivy League-educated young Black man who has long repressed his family’s traumatic enslaved past and begins to have disturbing dreams about his Yoruba ancestors.”

Other people, however, were offended by aspects of the play, such as a sexual relationship that a slave has with a plantation owner. Protests against the play were launched. School administrators became fearful that protests could turn violent. It decided to prohibit the play from being shown on campus.

The school’s decision to shut down the play caused Abcarian to respond with the predictable term: Censorship! She writes: “The censorship impulse on both extremes of the political spectrum is strangling discourse, critical thinking and, really, the human spirit. As a writer, I have to believe in my bones that anyone can write about anything.”

Abcarian is, of course, right when she says that “anyone can write about anything.” But that doesn’t mean that someone else is required to publish it. I am free to write an article extolling the virtues of libertarianism. The LA Times though has the right to decline to publish it, in which case I am not being censored. The Times has the right to run its newspaper any way it wants.

By the same token, a college or university has the right to run its school any way it wants. Let’s consider an extreme example. Let’s assume that a college teaches a course in holocaust denial and another course on the virtues of slavery. It has the right to teach both courses. That’s because the school has the right to run its operations any way it wants. 

Let’s assume, however, that the school’s board of trustees directs the school’s president to shut down both courses. Has the board of trustees engaged in censorship? No. It is simply running the school the way it wants. As the board of trustees, it has the final authority to make that decision.

Let’s now assume that the state or federal government directs the school to shut down those two courses. That’s when we cross into the area of censorship. Thus, censorship applies only when the government is involved, not when a school is deciding what is going to be taught or shown on campus.

A problem, however, arises with respect to government-owned or government-subsidized schools, which is the case with Santa Monica College, which is a community college. Now, two principles come into conflict — the right of the school to run its operations the way it wants and the principle that government should not infringe on freedom of speech.

In the case of a government-owned college or university, how does one resolve the conflict between freedom of speech and the right of the school to run its own operations? It is impossible to come up with a satisfactory answer. Inevitably, the final decision will be entirely arbitrary. 

But it’s important to recognize something: The problem arises because the government is running or subsidizing colleges and universities. If all education was private — which is what should be the case — then the issues of free speech and censorship never arise. Instead, it simply becomes a matter of each institution running its affairs the way it wants — and letting consumers (e.g., students) decide whether they wish to go to school there. 

Reprinted with permission from The Future of Freedom Foundation.