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American Journalism Review
Censorship for Children?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Censorship for Children?   

Saving Our Children from the First Amendment

By Kevin W. Saunders
New York University Press
310 pages; $48

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


This book presents an argument that is brave and appealing but probably doomed.

It crafts a careful, lawyerly case that the First Amendment "should be significantly weaker" for children than adults, shielding them from "sexual materials...violent materials, vulgar or profane materials, and the hate-filled music used to recruit the next generation to supremacist organizations."

Kevin W. Saunders, a Michigan State law professor, doesn't shrink from labeling these restrictions as "censorship" and "paternalism," and he stoutly defends society's right to practice both on behalf of children. "Children are different," Saunders writes. "Their abilities to analyze conflicting visions of society are not fully developed."

Saunders deserves attention for challenging free-expression orthodoxy. But whatever its conceptual merits, the premise that we could legislate control over today's ideas and images seems nave. What legions could enforce it in a world overrun by the digitized deluge?

Much of his book reads like a legal brief, as he piles up Supreme Court precedents for protecting children. If we can restrict minors from driving, marrying, voting, drinking and smoking, he deduces, we have legal authority to protect them from toxic messages.

For example, he favors making it illegal to market to young people images that "appeal to a morbid or shameful interest in violence" and lack "literary, political, artistic or scientific value for minors." He would outlaw renting violent videos to minors and selling them CDs "with offensive or indecent language." He wants televised violence, like sexually indecent material, "channeled into hours when children are less likely to be in the audience."

This all seems well-intentioned, but the problems mount quickly. Saunders heads toward the deep end as he builds up enthusiasm for regulation. He would proscribe indecent material "presented to an audience that the speaker knows includes children." He would require billboards that advertise tobacco and alcohol to be "text only, with no use of color or imagery," and would ban commercials for tobacco and alcohol when children may be in the audience. He would make magazines "unavailable for purchase by children unless they were certified by the publishers as suitable."

The overbroadness is breathtaking.

Saunders does insist that none of these restrictions should apply to adults and that parents could override them for their own children. But too often he runs smack into the gigantic "who decides" problem that has historically derailed efforts to restrict content.

While he fairly carefully defines violence and obscenity, he is far less specific when using words like offensive, indecent and vulgar. At one point, he appears to mean "those values to which most of the members of society are committed." But who decides that? You? Me? John Ashcroft? Eminem?

More practically, Saunders brushes off the insurmountable problems of enforcing these restrictions in the interconnected, international, Internet age, where trouble lurks in hundreds of thousands of instantly accessed sites.

Consider what you can find in a brief visit online, looking for disturbing material for and about children. In a flash, you can launch a search using obvious key words, click on a few links, and find yourself viewing pictures of little girls, age maybe 7 to 14, who are cute, playful--and nude. You can link to sites for "family nudists" and "preteen models." And these are presumably legal sites; under U.S. law, minors' nudity isn't illegal unless it is "lascivious." Supposedly there are thousands of illegal sites showing sex involving children, and you can bet many teenagers can find them.

Then there are sites that advocate exterminating various ethnic and religious groups, or that print the most noxious and misogynist music lyrics. If you Google "how to build a bomb," you get results in the thousands. Visit chat rooms, and you (and your children) can talk to anyone about anything, or make play dates with pranksters and perverts.

All this is truly terrifying and overwhelming, far more than Saunders seems to appreciate, and it is almost certainly beyond the powers of even armies of speech police.

So what do we do? I don't blame Saunders for wanting to protect children, but suppression almost never works. It drives the problem underground, where it is more dangerous. It adds the enticement of forbidden fruit. It leads to stalemates over who sets and enforces boundaries.

Some things, such as sex acts involving children, should certainly be outlawed. But, despite Saunders' painstaking legal analysis, the law probably can't solve the problem. We can't snip the worldwide tentacles of the Internet any more than we can hold back the rain.

Ironically, perhaps, one answer to the challenge of new technology may be the lessons of old John Milton: In the marketplace of ideas, good messages must drive out bad. If we can't dry up the supply of harmful material, we have to marginalize it, by teaching and inspiring children to cope with it, reject it and move forward. That calls for the old-fashioned kind of interactivity, not between us and our machines, but between us and our children.

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