Censorship, Consequences and the Creative Process

by Christopher Schiller

Throughout the history of comics there are many brave examples of artists tackling controversial subject matter, which has been fodder for many stellar, ground breaking works. Often the tension of controversy is required to have a conversation of great substance with the audience. But there are those who attempt and often succeed in restricting these conversations through censorship, often with dire consequences. The novelist Salman Rushdie, no neophyte in the arena of censorship battles, has recently commented on the impact of censorship on both works and their creators, pointing out that there is more lasting resonance in the consequences of the prior restraint of creative endeavors than is immediately apparent.

A May 15th article in The New Yorker by Salman Rushdie draws from his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture given May 6th as part of the PEN World Voices festival. Rushdie discusses the impact of censorship on the creative process as well as the creator in a modern free speech society. The discussion points out the real effect that the vagueness inherent in most forms of censorship: the chilling of free speech. This, in turn, results in a diminished creative experience. Censorship is a strong form of the always-controversial legal concept of prior restraint that, when wielded freely and indiscriminately, can be devastating. However, if prior restraints — such as censorship — are removed, the field of expression still suffers consequences. The creator who ventures into sensitive mine fields must be prepared for repercussions. Express first, answer for your actions after you’ve taken the steps forward.

We Are All Authors and Potential Victims of Censorship

Although from the perspective of a novelist, Rushdie’s comments are not restricted to wordsmiths alone. Anyone who creates can be the subject (or target) of censorship. A quick glance back through the history of comics reveals that the medium has had its share of run-ins with various forms of censorship, too numerous to cite them all, from comics and graphic novels being banned from libraries to the Comics Code. (For more on comics’ tumultuous past, see this post by Joe Sergi.)

Comics are at the heart of this dilemma because they are an expressive medium. Expression pushes buttons. It makes you happy, sad, angry, upset, contemplative, uncomfortable — all of these effects are evidence that a viewpoint was shared, a conversation engaged. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The Vagaries of Censorship

Rushdie writes about censorship as if we all know what he’s talking about. I’m sure each reader here has an idea of exactly what censorship is for them. But what, exactly is censorship? Look for a definition in any dictionary (go ahead, I’ll wait) and you’ll find obfuscation. You’ll eventually get to a vague reference to an official examination of something “for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds” (source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/censor). You’ll often find religion or morality, public decency or good, or the interest of the security of the state referenced. But does this resolve into something firm you can point to? A line or demarcation that explicitly establishes the clear offender from someone who isn’t? And therein lies the problem. When you don’t know when you have crossed the line and the consequences of being found over it are grave enough, how readily are you willing to get near the area in question?

Chills Speech

A vague but powerful rule is like a blindfolded kid at a party with a large stick and only a vague notion of where the piñata is. You’ll not want to be anywhere near where that kid might swing. And you’ll likely not get much of the candy either. The artist, in fear of being caught by that vague swing will stay very far away from the controversial areas. And that’s a detriment to the creative process because it needs the freedom to go where the creative muses lead, as Rushdie elucidates:

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.

Censorship Is Stigma

It is usually not enough for a censor to simply remove the offending work from the stream of consciousness silently. Often a big deal is made about its removal. It’s scarlet letter time for the creator of the work as well. A “censored” author is controversial, titillating, scandalous. Remember, the label attaches not for any thing or action the author did, but in how a minority (and it always seems to be a minority, with power mind you, but a minority of decision makers) felt about the work or the idea of the work. (Often censors don’t even have to read or experience the subject matter being judged to “know” how bad it is.) As Rushdie terms it, “The assumption of guilt replaces the assumption of innocence.”

Courts’ Reluctance

Vague rules can be overturned in the courts because of the difficulty of knowing the boundaries and when you cross them. That’s the theory. In practice, laws that cling to moral stances or protecting the public, especially kids, get treated differently and may not see a courtroom to be challenged. The stigma remains attached to any challenger and is intensified in the public light of a battle in the courts. In the meantime, a law on the books, even a vague bad one, is still a law and must be obeyed or face the consequences.

Prior Restraint vs. Consequences

The legal concept of prior restraint arises from jurisdictions where freedom of speech is paramount. Prior restraint is controlling the possibility of speech, stopping it before it happens. In the United States, with our Constitution’s First Amendment blazing the way, the protection of the rights of freedom of expression are paramount and should rarely be restricted, if at all, and then only in the direst of instances for the briefest of periods. The U.S. Supreme Court has set very few areas of speech apart as speech that can be restricted prior to its utterance. The few examples lie in areas such as exigent national security issues, like reporting on active troop movements, which puts lives at risk. Time and again the courts have stated it is preferable, required even, to allow speech first, then attach consequences afterwards if necessary. This cautious approach to prior restrictions on speech allows legitimate discourse among considerate speakers who are willing to stand on their convictions and face the consequences and results their words and works stir up.

One need only look to brave examples such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-91, RAW original pub.) or the more recent completion of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls (1991-2, 2006 Top Shelf Productions, pub.) for the tackling of sensitive subject matter and breaking new ground in doing it.

By having been published, the artists need to be prepared for the consequences of their actions. If a publisher or cartoonist decides to create a work of controversy that touches on a highly sensitive subject (such as religious belief, as what happened in 2005 in Denmark when Jyllands-Posten published depictions of Muhammad, which is considered blasphemy by a great many, even if the action is legal within the country of publication), the repercussions of that action must be considered as legitimate concerns and dealt with with respect and understanding of the impact. Someone stepping off a curb blindly cannot blame the bus for running them over.

In the case of Lost Girls, the creators and publisher went in with their eyes wide open, “…we didn’t know what might happen, and we were certainly prepared to have to defend Lost Girls, perhaps in a court of law and we were confident that we could do that, but…” Alan Moore

And this is true of both the artist and the audience. The more a thinking person is challenged to defend his or her own beliefs or actions by the existence of a controversial work, the better the work makes the world as a whole.

Rushdie concludes:

Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. … Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.

And who couldn’t benefit from a little revolution now and then?

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Christopher Schiller is an independent, New York attorney whose practice focuses on copyright, entertainment, international art and media law. His diversity of personal and professional interests allows him to bring a broad perspective to the questions he’s asked to answer. http://www.christopherschiller.com