Most people who know me know that I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment. I agree with the character of Stephen Hopkins in 1776, when he says, “… in all my years I never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” I feel much the same way about the First Amendment right of freedom of religion. Short of living sacrifice, torture or physical harm being caused to an unwilling participant, I’m not sure that there’s much of anything that I would not permit in the context of religious worship. Questions would have to be resolved, however, as to what constitutes actual religious worship, and that’s where it can get tricky. Still, I think freedom of religion means ALL religions AND the right to choose not to have a religion, but that may be getting into another issue. To return to freedom of speech….
I think that those of us who condemn “censorship” should give some strong consideration to the fact that we, individually, engage in it with some frequency. In fact, it seems to me that the right of “freedom of speech,” carries with it the corollary right to censor that which we don’t approve of. The key to this, however, is that, if you censor my ability to encounter ideas of which you may not approve, then you are violating my right to freedom of speech (that is, to engage in discussing whatever ideas, etc. I wish, as long as I am doing no demonstrable harm or endangering others by doing so). Yes, theatre people, more than most, should be aware that there ARE limits on freedom of speech – yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre being the classic example, but the advocation of the violent overthrown of the government is another common one.
The reality is, however, that we do choose what ideas to listen to through our choices of what TV shows to watch, books or magazines to read, movies to see, churches to attend, etc. Is this censorship? I think one could correctly suggest that it is a form of censorship, but, at the risk of sounding like Mitt Romney, though, it’s what I’d call “self-censorship,” which is quite a different thing from what I’d call “real” censorship. People are, automatically, drawn to support certain ideas and beliefs with which they agree, so they watch TV, read books, see movies, support political candidates, attend churches, etc. which practice (or at least preach) those ideas. I have to admit that I do this same sort of thing, if for no other reason than the fact that I can’t participate in EVERY discussion, although I do try to make some attempts to see all sides of the picture. That is probably the most important point – while I may not agree with a lot of the folks on FOX News (for example), I think they have a right to have and express those opinions, no matter how misguided I might think they are.
What I would call “real” censorship, however, seems all too common an idea in our society. That’s the notion that only those ideas which I (whoever the “I” is in the case involved) support should have the right to be heard. I believe that’s a true violation of the whole idea of the First Amendment. YOUR right to censor the ideas you wish to listen to, support, etc. in your own life, should not affect MY right to consider alternatives if I wish to do so. Unfortunately, all too many religions, political groups and all sorts of organizations don’t seem willing to accept this idea. To me, this seems truly Un-American, as it seems to violate the rights of the rest of us.
How does this relate to the idea that the Disney Company was, apparently, concerned about at least some of the rather “adult material” in the Into the Woods script? (By the way, Sondheim doesn’t seem too upset about the changes that were actually put into the movie, according to what I have read.) I think the point is important that, first of all, the creators were under no obligation to sell anyone the rights to the work if they thought that their material was going to be altered in ways of which they didn’t approve. I think one can argue that by selling the rights to use the material, the seller has granted the right to the purchaser to alter it along agreed upon lines. Just because we (or I) would prefer to have the material used only in ways we approve, doesn’t alter the right of the creator to sell the rights to it. After all, it’s his/her material; it doesn’t belong to us. The creator owns it. That’s the nature of intellectual property rights. Yes, we might wish that the creator hadn’t allowed the material to be altered (or otherwise used) in ways which we don’t prefer, but no one has forced the creator to sell those rights.
I see this as an important difference. Censorship, as I see it, is the denial of the right of the creator to control the use of his/her material as he/she sees fit, usually by the refusal to allow it to be used, published or circulated, regardless of the creator’s desires. I find that offensive to a much greater degree than the creator entering into a contractual relationship which allows for the alteration of the material along agreed upon lines. After all, the holiday season is full of examples where religious, or popular, material is used for purposes which have nothing to do with the reasons for which that material was created.
The music for Handel’s Messiah, for example, is in public domain, but that doesn’t make using it to sell toys, or other stuff, very tasteful. I also don’t care for using the US flag to promote one’s used car lot, or implying that anyone who doesn’t support your particular political opinions lacks “patriotism.” After all, the United States is a country which was founded by traitors, who became “our patriotic founders” only because they got to write our history books.
There is also the fact that we can refuse to buy products or otherwise support companies or people who use material, or express ideas, which we don’t support. If I don’t like Chick-fil-A’s attitude towards gay people, I don’t have to patronize their stores and the same is true of other businesses with political/social positions I don’t agree with. I am reminded of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had an important impact on the civil rights movement. Those people weren’t so much denying the bus company the right to insist on segregating some people to the back of the bus as they were simply saying that they wouldn’t do business with it as long as it did so. That’s not really censorship, although it could, and in the case of the bus boycott, did, lead to changes in both company policy and law.
I oppose censorship as strongly as I know how, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the right to take (and advocate) peaceful, legal actions by which I can demonstrate my lack of agreement. If I don’t like the idea that the Disney Company and Sondheim have made changes to the Into the Woods script, I don’t have to give them my money by purchasing a ticket. That’s not really censorship, as it doesn’t deny them their rights, it’s just a form of “civil action” expressing my disapproval of those changes.
Personally, I think it’s likely that I will see the movie. It’s got a good cast and I’d like to see what they’ve done with the show. I fully expect to enjoy it, but I don’t think I have the right to deny them the right to make agreed upon changes in their material, even if I would prefer that they hadn’t done so. That really would be censorship.