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Not in Front of the Children

' Indecency,' Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, Second Edition

with a new introduction by Marjorie Heins

Publication Year: 2007

From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Internet filters to the v-chip, censorship exercised on behalf of children and adolescents is often based on the assumption that they must be protected from "indecent" information that might harm their developmentùwhether in art, in literature, or on a Web site. But where does this assumption come from, and is it true? In Not in Front of the Children, Marjorie Heins explores the fascinating history of "indecency" laws and other restrictions aimed at protecting youth. From Plato's argument for rigid censorship, through Victorian laws aimed at repressing libidinous thoughts, to contemporary battles over sex education in public schools and violence in the media, Heins guides us through what became, and remains, an ideological minefield. With fascinating examples drawn from around the globe, she suggests that the "harm to minors" argument rests on shaky foundations. There is an urgent need for informed, dispassionate debate about the perceived conflict between the free-expression rights of young people and the widespread urge to shield them from expression that is considered harmful. Not in Front of the Children spurs this long-needed conversation.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xiv

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the Open Society Institute (OSI), which supported my vision for this book both financially and intellectually. Copious thanks to its entire staff, and especially to Gara LaMarche, director of OSI’s U.S. Programs, and Gail Goodman, program officer for OSI’s Individual Project Fellowships. My colleagues in free-expression work have been a steady source of ...

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pp. xv-xxx

March 2007: A Connecticut high school principal has just cancelled the performance of a student-composed theater piece about the war in Iraq. The students had already rewritten the script in response to administration concerns, removing graphic violence and “some things that reflect poorly on the Bush administration.”1 But the principal still disapproved. Barely a week before this story broke, the Supreme Court heard argument ...

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pp. 3-14

In 1998, citing this famous passage from Plato’s Republic, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the legal claims of a high school drama teacher who had been punished for choosing a controversial play called Independence for her advanced acting class. (The play addressed themes of divorce, homosexuality, and unwed pregnancy.) The judges ruled that school ...

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pp. 15-36

The judges who quoted Plato’s Republic in their 1998 ruling against the drama teacher Margaret Boring reflected a familiar and obviously ancient child-rearing philosophy. As one scholar observed not long ago, “the greatest part of contemporary criticism of television depends on a moral disapproval which is identical to Plato’s attack on epic and tragic poetry in the fourth ...

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pp. 37-59

The same year Judge Learned Hand wrote in United States v. Kennerley that “the understanding and morality of the present time” rejected Victorian-era sexual repression, Dr. Sigmund Freud published an article describing the influence of his psychoanalytic theories of dream interpretation, childhood sexuality, and neurosis on virtually every facet of modern culture. Eight ...

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pp. 60-88

Samuel Roth’s case was now headed for the Supreme Court, but two months before it was argued, the Court briefly and elegantly interred the century-old “deprave and corrupt” obscenity test of Regina v. Hicklin. It was a bit of an anticlimax. The case of Butler v. Michigan involved a typical state obscenity law that criminalized any publication with a tendency “to incite minors to violent or ...

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pp. 89-108

A social historian might have appreciated this tongue-in-cheek exchange as a manifestation of sexual openness as pioneered by Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, and their successors, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, in the 1960s,2 but the Federal Communications Commission was not amused. Assigned by Congress to regulate broadcasting, which ...

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pp. 109-136

The FCC had insisted that the Pacifica case was narrow, involving only George Carlin’s provocatively repetitious riffs on the seven naughty words. And the agency was as good as its word, initially. In the first eight years after the Supreme Court’s decision, it focused its indecency rule on the taboo terms and little else. Barely two months after Pacifica, the Commission dismissed complaints ...

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pp. 137-156

In 1999, a recent college graduate named Wendy Shalit published A Return to Modesty, a book lamenting her generation’s sexual freedom. Shalit argued that too many youngsters “know far too much too soon” about sex, and “as a result they end up, in some fundamental way, not knowing.”1 Her variation on harm-to-minors ideology—the notion that sexual knowledge in itself is ...

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7. INDECENCY LAW ON TRIAL: RENO V. ACLU [Contains Illustrations]

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pp. 157-179

The same year that Congress made “abstinence unless married” official government policy, it also passed its biggest, most sweeping anti-indecency law. Among the many ironies of this 1996 Communications Decency Act, or CDA, was that the youngsters it was ostensibly passed to protect generally knew more about the Internet and how to explore its wonders than the ...

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pp. 180-200

The Supreme Court’s stirring words in Reno v. ACLU about the expressive potential of the Internet were exhilarating to First Amendment aficionados but did little to alter the politics of child protection. Just days after the Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, the White House began to float alternative proposals for controlling cyberspace. The new emphasis ...

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pp. 201-227

In 1998, the Indian fundamentalist group Shiv Sena organized violent protests against the film Fire, the tale of a love affair between two women trapped in oppressive marriages. The film’s lesbian theme, ridicule of religious dogma, and portrayal of males as simultaneously tyrannical and ridiculous all contributed to the controversy. By December, Shiv Sena had ...

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pp. 228-253

While European Union officials exude skepticism about the actual harm to minors from controversial expression, in the United States by the 1990s it was politically almost untenable to question the claim that media violence has been proven to have dire effects on youth. Yet from Dr. Tissot’s L’Onanisme in the 18th century to campaigns against comic books in the 1950s and TV ...

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pp. 254-264

In September 1999, New York City’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, tried to close down an art exhibit entitled Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum, a venerable institution supported largely with city funds. Among the works on display that the mayor considered “sick” and “disgusting” was the British artist Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary,” a glittering African madonna with an exposed ...


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pp. 265-372


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pp. 373-402

E-ISBN-13: 9780813543888
E-ISBN-10: 0813543886
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813542218
Print-ISBN-10: 0813542219

Page Count: 442
Illustrations: 17 illustrations
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Censorship -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Obscenity (Law) -- United States.
  • United States -- Moral conditions -- History -- 20th century.
  • Youth -- United States -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • National characteristics, American -- History -- 20th century.
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