A local incident is fairly representative of a situation developing throughout the nation. The council of the PTA, concerned about juvenile delinquency, publicly demanded that certain magazines be withdrawn from the newsstands because, it alleged, they were demoralizing, particularly in their sex emphasis. The city’s daily newspaper gave editorial approval, saying, “We think the PTA members who have shown initiative in helping to make our city a decent place for children and young folk are deserving of support by every parent.” In response to this pressure the agency handling sales banned 25 men’s magazines of the “girlie type.”

Immediately several professors in the law school of a large university in the community protested the extra-legal proceeding. On a single day 300 students of the university signed a protest, similar to that of their professors, urging that such censorship over reading matter available on the newsstands violated the freedom of the press. They asked that it be discontinued. These opponents insisted: “An axe has been used where a scalpel was appropriate; freedom of the press is one of the most important and most deeply cherished of our constitutional rights; a publication is not obscene just because it is offensive to some persons; the magazines in question have not been legally proven obscene in a single instance; if obscene magazines are appearing, there are legal means to deal with them, rather than the haphazard and untrained judgment of a small private group.” The opponents concluded their argument thus: “We prefer to trust in the traditional orderly processes of government to determine such delicate and complex questions rather than to rely on even a public-spirited pressure group.”

An effort was made to provide for a public hearing, with both sides presenting their views, but the PTA council declined to have anything to do with it. Could it have been that their opponents had convinced them they were wrong? Or that they discovered somewhat to their chagrin that after all the banned magazines were read mainly by adults? Or that the sales agency intimated that it expected soon to resume distribution?

Some Salient Facts

Without presuming to pass upon the merit or demerit of this local action, perhaps we may use the occasion to point up some pertinent considerations.

First, it is true, according to Senator Estes Kefauver, who has seen the evidence, that some of the most objectionable publications and photographs are distributed to children, even mailed to them. Further, it must be observed that immense numbers of people in the United States are becoming attentive to what seems to be an alarming growth of pornographic publications.

Article continues below

The Postmaster General, who holds the high responsibility of passing upon what is mailable, is reported as about to ask Congress for a stiffer law. The law now reads: “Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, printing or other publication of an indecent character … is hereby declared to be nonmailable matter, and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any postoffice or by any letter carrier.” Law enforcement agencies complain that they are only partly able to restrict the distribution of “printed filth.” Why? Must enforcement always await formal complaint?

Special Agent Charles E. Moore Jr. of the FBI says: “Local action by church and civic groups is the surest way to put smut salesmen out of business and rid newsstands and drug stores of obscene publications.” Obviously this suggests use of free speech rather than forcible control. It should be accepted to mean, however, that churches and civic groups not only have the right of free speech to express opinion but have a duty in helping to form a moral public opinion by their exercise of that right, especially in respect to evil license.

Actually the problem is by no means new. It is as old as civilization. Censorship was demanded in ancient Greece and Rome. It has been a major weapon of autocratic governments from the days of the Caesars to the latest example of the Communist dictatorship which prohibited Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. It was the chosen instrument of a church in the Inquisition and remains in force with that authoritarian church in respect to dress, printing, drama, and painting, and much else, so much so that the church is accused of telling a man what he can think, what tastes he shall cultivate, and how he must behave along all lines, except drinking and gambling.

Perhaps the loudest and most lasting protest against censorship in respect to printing was made in 1644 by John Milton. Milton addressed his Areopagitica to the English Parliament against a decree of the Star Chamber that all printing should be entrusted to the Archbishop, the Bishop of London, and the Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge. The practical effect was to give Archbishop Laud absolute control over every press in England. He used his authority after the manner of the papists whose practices were most detested by the Presbyterian Government of the time.

Article continues below

Milton’s masterpiece is strong meat, likely too strong to be palatable to many people. In it he declared that the attempt to keep out evil doctrine by censorship is “like the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting the park gates.” He reminds his readers that ideas are spread as effectively by word of mouth as by the use of printing. He argues that censorship, if attempted over printed matter, to become effective must be extended to apply to garb, pastimes, eating, in fact to almost everything. Moses, Daniel, and Paul and the Church Fathers, he claimed, by precept and example, enjoined freedom in the pursuit of knowledge. Milton ended with a paean to England which through freedom of the press had come to be recognized as “a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit.” In a final burst he prayed, “Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The American Tradition

The founders of our Republic, steeped in Milton and resentful of the arbitrary proscriptions of a Laud, wrote into the first article of the Bill of Rights a guarantee for the freedom of utterance. We are not shocked when we read that Thomas Jefferson, on being informed that a book has been suppressed, exclaimed:

I am really mortified to be told that in the United States of America a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of a criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the Civil Magistrates. Is this our freedom of religion? Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold and what we may buy? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or a layman, simple as ourselves, to set up his reason for what we are to read and what we must believe?

It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not.… For God’s sake let us hear both sides, if we choose.”

A Spiritual Approach

Desperate situations require desperate remedies. If pornography is regnant anywhere, interested citizens should consult the district attorney. They should, even before resorting to court action, endeavor to take all possible positive steps without the use of force. An influential Christian magazine editor advises that our real reliance must be upon spiritual disciplines which produce “a sensitized conscience.” A home counselor asks if those whose children are susceptible to corruption from salacious literature have provided an abundance of attractive wholesome literature for their homes. A pastor advocates adequate church libraries with a promotion of the offerings that will win readers. The churches should, he says, seek a power of persuasion and enlistment that will induce high standards and produce good taste. Their task is to teach youth to approve that which is excellent. Others have worked at maintaining a joyous social program that is Christian.

Article continues below

It is of the utmost importance that Christians try to see life whole, and not fatuously imagine that youth is lost through a single evil. An educator of wide experience recently declared that if one should today single out a sole factor in the creation of sex sins, it would be the scanty dress which obtains in Christian homes as well as in those that are godless. Another thinks that reading, which according to reports is now at a minimum, is far less corrupting than what is served upon screen and television. These opinions, and many others that might be quoted, add up to the conviction that home training, effective evangelism, and Christian education must confront the evil elements in our society and overcome evil with good.

Curiously enough censorship, whether operating openly or behind the scenes, whether officially constituted or asserted by self-appointed groups, has usually tended to ignore flagrant moral infractions and gravitated toward suppression of political policy on religious heresy. Generally censors have been notorious for partisanship and arbitrariness and almost universally hated for a ruthless disregard of human rights and freedoms. Who, then, is qualified to serve as a censor? Is Cato or any of his ilk anywhere? It is the arrogation of individuals or groups who assume superior ability and authority to become guardians of people’s choices and behavior, according to private canons, that arouses resentment. Democracy usually refuses to tolerate such. It is free, however, to give judgments on all matters without setting up committees to impose individual views on others apart from due process of law.


Dr. Joseph M. Dawson has served Southern Baptist causes effectively for more than half a century. Born in 1879 in Texas, he received the B.A. degree in 1904 from Baylor University which also conferred on him the D.D. in 1916. Dr. Dawson was cited in 1955 by Protestants and Other Americans United for his contributions to religious liberty. He is author of America’s “Way in Church, State and Society.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.