Can Restrictions on the Freedom of Speech be Justified?

Here is my final Philosophy essay from the second semester of 2011.

Seems rather fitting that it tackles the topic of freedom of speech, considering all the protests that have been generated by SOPA, pending American Internet legislation, lately.

But this essay only focuses on one specific area of freedom of speech: Porn.

NOTE: Some parts of this essay may be considered NSFW.

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There should be no restrictions to the freedom of speech in any form, except if that speech violates John Stuart Mill‘s Harm Principle. In this essay I will be investigating conservative views against the freedom of pornography, and liberal views for the freedom of pornography. I will also examine the restrictions placed on pornography by New Zealand and Australian laws and whether these follow Mill’s Harm Principle.

The Stanford Encyclopdedia of Philosophy defines pornography as:

any material (either pictures or words) that is sexually explicit.

The problem with this definition is what exactly is sexually explicit? The definition varies from culture to culture and changes over time. Some Eastern cultures today define a woman showing her ankle as being ‘sexually explicit’, this has not been the case in the Western world since the Victorian Age. When it comes to restrictions on pornography, the item which is being restricted must be defined as being obscene and “utterly without redeeming social value”. In the same case, Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), Justice Potter Stuart said, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it”. If a member of the highest court in the United States of America is unable to definitively define pornography, how is the layperson supposed to?

In New Zealand, censorship is placed on works deemed as obscene. The New Zealand Classification Office is in charge of these decisions and they have “freakishly blurry laws when it comes to what is considered obscene”. While it is understandable for practices such as sexual violence, coercion, torture or extreme violence, bestiality, and necrophilia to be placed in the obscene category, why do other acts not on the Classification Office’s list also frequently get censored? Why acts such as fisting [the insertion of a person’s fist into a vagina or anus] and squirting [female ejaculation]? “Why are four fingers okay? What’s so obscene about a thumb?” Why is it okay for the Classification Office to ban these perfectly healthy sexual acts, which are not illegal? How does these legal acts violate Mill’s Harm Principle? Simply put, they do not. These acts are nothing more than a healthy expression of a person’s sexuality.

Australian laws go even further. In early 2010 they started to restrict mainstream pornography from showing women with A-cup breasts, on the grounds that these images and writing would promote paedophilia. As in New Zealand, female ejaculation is also banned, “with censors branding it as ‘abhorrent’”. Many women have A-cup sized breasts. Many women also obtain female ejaculation though sexual stimulation. Why is a certain type of the healthy female body now unacceptable? Why is the moral majority dictating to the moral minority that certain perfectly healthy appearances and sexual acts are morally wrong? Why do they get to force their moral objections on others, where these things have no consequence on them directly? Are they actually the ones causing the harm in trying to prevent these perceived threats? In Mill’s own words:

The only principle for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, it to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right. There are good reasons to remonstrating with him, or reason with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desire to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one for which is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.

Given that the moral majority are seeking to censor more and more sexual acts and body types which are perfectly normal and healthy, could they be contributing to unintended consequences? Consequences that only occur because people become unaware that these things are natural and normal, and start to think they is something wrong with them? Women in their 20s are now banned from publications in Australia if they only have A-cup breasts. Publications are having to airbrush labias to make them “neat and tidy” so that “frontal nudity… [has] only discreet genital detail.” Women have all sorts of different appearing labias, but since this law was passed, there has been an increase in labiaplasties in Australia. One of the common arguments against pornography is that it demeans women and objectifies them, but is this censorship really any better? If nothing else it is placing a higher ideal standard on the appearance of women. Surely that is harmful to the way that normal, healthy, beautiful women percieve themselves? Pornography left uncensored, excluding depictions of bestiality, necrophilia, etc, shows that people, men and women, come in many different shapes and sizes, and respond to pleasure in many different, healthy ways.

Censorship often violates Mill’s Harm Principle, especially when it comes to depictions of the human body. By restricting the images of types of natural, healthy grown men and women, censorship generates more harm than good, in the form of unrealistic expectations from the adult human body. Censorship is the hiding of the truth, this is why there should be no restrictions on the freedom of speech.

Bibilography:
J. Coen, The Labiaplasty You Never Knew You Wanted [NSFW], Jezebel (May 10, 2010), retrieved on October 16, 2011, from: http://jezebel.com/5535356/the-labiaplasty-you-never-knew-you-wanted-[nsfw]
C. Doctorow, Australian Censor Board Demands Large-Breasted Porn-Stars, BoingBoing, (January 28, 2010), retrieved on October 16, 2011, from: http://boingboing.net/2010/01/28/australian-censor-bo.html
J. Senat, An Overview of How Courts have Definied Obscenity, (1997), retrieved on October 16, 2011, from: http://www.cas.okstate.edu/jb/faculty/senat/jb3163/obscenity.html
A. Wee, Taking Out the Titillation, Gay Express (August 8, 2011), retrieved on October 16, 2011, from: http://www.gayexpress.co.nz/2011/08/taking-out-the-
C. West, Pornography and Censorship, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward Zalta (ed.), retrieved on October 16, 2011, from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pornography-censorship/
D. van Mill, Freedom of Speech, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), retrieved on October 16, 2011, from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freedom-speech/

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