- Hardcover: 356 pages
- Publisher: Hill & Wang; 1st Edition edition (1 April 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374175454
- ISBN-13: 978-0374175450
- Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 2.5 x 24.1 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,180,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency", Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth Hardcover – 1 Apr 2001
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Heins argues convincingly throughout the book that children are more robust than we often take them to be, and that they have historically been used as a convenient moral shield by the state. Whenever the authorities have reason to want something banned, they tend to set a lowest common denominator for free speech, by using children to set the standards for what adults can read, watch, listen to and download.
British readers who believe in the unconditional right to free speech, such as myself, can only envy the USA's robust tradition of First Amendment rights, and the various civil liberties organisations that defend it. American laws such as the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which proposed extensive regulation of the internet, have met with informed resistance in the courts. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, the 1996 Communications Decency Act was successfully overturned.
Americans are also more sensitive to the dangers of self-regulation, by industry watchdogs and consumer associations, than British commentators. In the UK, organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation and the Independent Television Commission exercise a huge influence over what people are allowed to see and when. These organisations do this in the name of 'the people', despite being unelected, unaccountable, and overly sensitive to the complaints of a shrill minority rather than the rational majority.
By contrast, US commentators such as Heins, and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, argue that self-regulation has a chilling effect on free speech, creating a climate hostile to the open exchange of ideas and debate.
If there is single a flaw to Not in Front of the Children, it is Heins's tendency to pose free speech arguments in terms of children's rights to consume enlightening material such as safe sex advice. This argument panders to the advocates of censorship, by simply counterposing a claim that controversial material is morally good to a claim that controversial material is morally bad.
This fudges the issue, which is that children should not be used to set the standard for adults' freedom of speech. The notion of children's rights is irrelevant here - what children can and cannot consume is not a matter of their rights, but of the rights of their parents to decide what is fit for them. This is a decision that adults should be free to make for their children independently, without any intervention by the state.
That point aside, Heins's book is an invaluable resource for anybody interested in the legal, political and moral issues surrounding children and censorship.
The author's conclusion is that there is no clear evidence that sexually explicit and violent material is harmful to children. Current standards in Europe are much looser in this regard, and there is no apparent behavior problem as a result. I'm skeptical that this is the right conclusion to draw.
The book speculates that the reason for this hard-to-observe linkage is that information also empowers children to make better choices, provides catharsis through the material rather than the experience, and isn't taken that seriously by children.
The history of perceptions about sexual practices is also explored.
Anyone who is a lawyer will be familiar with most of the laws and cases described here. Anyone who isn't may find the legal perspective a bit heavy in the book.
What the book doesn't address adequately is the increasing intrusiveness of sexually explicit and violent material into homes. Although there are plenty of references to Monica Lewinsky in the book, the main problem of the news coverage of the White House intern was that it was almost impossible to avoid. Having a teenaged daughter in the house who doesn't like to hear about such things, I was constantly amazed at how we could be watching some ordinary television show and the networks would break in with sexually explicit references to that case. We literally could not keep the "free speech" about this sexual act out of our homes.
Now, if someone were dropping garbage on our front lawn, we could stop it. Why can't we stop more of the same when it offends us? Certainly, we don't have to watch . . . but the material seeks us out more aggressively than that.
Basically, the problem today is that speech no longer attempts to be considerate. There's money in sexually explicit material and violence, and we will continue to see more and more of it.
The book's other weakness is that it doesn't make much of an effort to differentiate between what "children" of various ages should or should not be exposed to. While I favor sex education, there is certainly an age below which it may not be a good idea for all children. Not to have provided the education to older teenagers just causes other problems.
Also, children are individuals. You could on average show that there was no effect from this kind of material, but theoretically made half the children more prone and half less prone to change behavior for the worse. So the lack of evidence in studies doesn't convince me one way or the other.
Like most parents, I can remember times when our boys got overly worked up watching violence on television. If we cut back on those shows, the in-home violence between them was reduced. It was hard to control. If television had been less violent, I think my job as a parent would have been easier with our two sons. But, that's a question of parental influence . . . and not an appropriate subject for censorship. Parents are going to have to be tougher in the future on keeping violence out of the house where their children are overly stimulated or made fearful by it. Both of my daughters have an exaggerated fear for their personal safety based on the ways they see women and girls abused on television and in the movies. I believe that there are studies that bear out this change in perception of personal risk among Americans.
I left this book yearning for more information about how to handle these issues inside a family today.
Where in your life are you getting more information than is good for you? Where are you getting less than you need? How can you create a better balance?
Be open to new learning, while creating a positive mental image of the potential of all!
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
A previous reviewer wants to know why we don't have more data on how, say, pornography affects teenagers. One reason is that a controlled experiment would be nearly impossible: finding teenagers who haven't been exposed to any pornography is difficult enough, but for a scientist or social scientist to get approval from human review boards for the other half of the experiment (the teenagers that you're going to make sure have been exposed to plenty of pornography, to study its supposed effects) would be nearly impossible. But as the previous reviewer points out, we have a vast profusion of anecdotal evidence: pornography is widely available in Europe, which seems to have fewer of the supposedly pornography-related problems than does the United States. Second, since almost all teenagers voluntarily expose themselves to pornography, it's safe to observe that the vast majority of them suffer from no effects. Who are we protecting with laws prohibiting minors from obtaining pornography? Parents who cannot and will not deal with the fact that their 12-year-old son is always horny and quite probably already is sexually (if not emotionally or intellectually) an adult?
What are teenagers learning about the importance of personal freedom when they see their peers suspended, expelled, and even imprisoned, for their artistic expressions? Students can legitimately complain that many primary and secondary schools unnecessarily subject them to enforced orthodoxy and repressive strictures, particularly in regards to sexual and violent imagry.
I agree with the author that this paternalistic censorship harms children in many ways, and her discussion of the "modeling effects" and the teaching of authoritarianism should not be dismissed lightly.
I can see how this book may be a slightly difficult read for those who haven't been to law school or haven't studied this subject matter previously, but it is worth the effort. You don't have to be lawyer to understand it, and perhaps the most importance audience for this book isn't.