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Censuring Online Comstockery

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Author 13195
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It's time Americans denounce the content policies of social networks, forums and other online companies who censor user content, often deleting user's entire accounts and their past history, with little or no warning.

As online behemoths ubiquitously weave themselves ever more into all the ways we communicate--even partnering user's access with other sites-- will we, or even our government under existing laws, have the ability to oppose corporate online policing, most specifically for that most nuanced and largely constitutionally unprotected category of speech--that of our sex?

This question is posed on a sexual free speech anniversary of sorts. The term "comstockery" first appeared in a NY Times editorial 115 years ago today on 12/12/1895 . It plead the case for giving financial donations to help free an imprisoned bookshop owner arrested under the Comstock censorship Act, his family left without means to support themselves, unable to pay his fine. Archival evidence has yet to confirm that the term was actually coined by the New York Times editorial staff. ( The playwright George Bernard Shaw's quote, "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States," in his 1905 response to a New York Times reporter, is more famously associated with the word .) But it does appear that the editorial was the first time the word reached a wide print audience.

Presumably the coining of "comstockery" employed an intonation of "mockery" of the law, perhaps with secondary metaphor of the Puritan's pillory "stocks," since those convicted under Comstock were imprisoned and publicly humiliated. Named after the impassioned New York do-gooder Anthony Comstock, who single handedly, albeit with blessings of New York's J.P. Morgan and Samuel Colgate, inspired Congress to pass his law with little less than a day's debate, the Comstock Act of 1873 effectively became the granddaddy of American censorship laws. It spawned a menagerie of Little Comstock Acts throughout the states in the late 19 th century, setting precedence for birthing current censorship laws and supreme court decisions to our present day.

Frauds Exposed, published by Anthony Comstock in 1880.
(Image by William L Clements Library, University Michigan)
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In our own blase', R-rated "sex sells" culture, most all of us-- many not so happily-- assume that the sexual revolution had been won in the 60s . Sexual politics of important lifestyle concerns--gay rights, abortion, discrimination and sex education, rage on. But we've won the right to titillate; so long as private business allows.

The Gilded Age's turn- of- the- century brand of censorship was largely governmentally directed. Our own federal laws (portions of Comstock are still on the books) and state censorship still restrict our sexual expressions in everything from sex toys to attempts to levy taxes on mainstream book sellers for books that might have sexual content.

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But the greater threat is that of business policies that shape our public discourse, in large part censoring adults under the auspices of child protection.

Sexual accountability and responsibility do depend upon balancing freedoms with protections.

Appropriate-age education of children is indeed a huge societal concern.

But the issue of censoring adults lies between the intercourse of individual and business constitutional rights of speech (including rights to restrict) within the Supreme Court's compromise decision of empowering local "community standards," while leaving undefined what constitutes an online "public square."

That's because the dirty little paradox is that American's sexual speech is not explicitly protected under the First Amendment, and therefore has no one superseding law to protect it.

What is obscene or just offensive, what has cultural value or is purely prurient? A sample ride between Supreme Court Justice's statements about private and public sexual expression shows the dilemma.

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Stewart-- "I know it when I see it;"

Frankfurter-- (the Government may not) "reduce the adult population . . . to . . . only what is fit for children."

Stevens-- ""the level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would besuitable for a sandbox."

Kennedy-- "" emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex." Scalia's dissent to Kennedy's majority opinion-- "It is clear from this that the Court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of engagement are observed."

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Author, Radio Guest, Sleeve-roller-upper and Civic Discourse Producer for sexual freedom and responsibilities, consumer values, volunteerism and informed citizenry. Profile links- ____ http://www.ourfuture.org/user/11807/full ____ ____ (more...)

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Censuring Online Comstockery