Issue 85, Spring 2002

by Joan E. Bertin

There are many reasons to be concerned about the controversy over Judith Levine’s forthcoming book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (U. Minn. Press, 2002). It is not only the calls to censor the book that are alarming, but the threat to censor sex education and discussion of teen sexuality.

Among the book’s critics are “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger, the Culture and Family Institute, and Concerned Women for America, whose mission, according to its website, “is to protect and promote Biblical values….”

They are, of course, entitled to criticize the book and advocate opposing views. CWA and CFI, however, are not satisfied with voicing their objections, but have instead pressed the Governor to intervene.

They make a familiar error in saying that “this is not about censorship,” because private publication possibilities exist. This is like saying that removing art from a museum in response to complaints about its content isn’t censorship, because the art can still appear in a private gallery. The argument turns the First Amendment on its head, since it is government actors and institutions, not private ones, that the Constitution requires to be neutral with regard to speech and ideas.

Unfortunately, the University sent a mixed message by appointing an external review committee to look into the situation, saying “as a public university, we are accountable and responsive to the public.” This is certainly true in a general sense, but the University’s desire to be accountable and responsive should not undermine its primary mission and obligation: to encourage learning and promote the freedom to think, read, question, and dissent.

Critics equate discussion of certain sexual acts with endorsement and assert that the harms of certain conduct should be assumed and not questioned. Will public officials have the courage to respond that, however passionate the debate, the Constitution simply doesn’t sanction official taboos against any subject or viewpoint? Members of Congress will have an opportunity to display their commitment to Constitutional principles soon, as they are asked to vote on funding for sex education that limits the information students may receive to messages consistent with the views espoused by the Dr. Lauras among us.