Sep 012018

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 2/27/18.

Lately I’ve been enjoying watching re-runs of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. It’s somewhat reassuring to watch a previous generation get through a period of political angst as we go through this current one, especially as there are quite a few parallels that can be drawn.

I mention this because as people call for Amazon, Apple, Roku, and YouTube to drop NRA-TV, I realize that we’ve seen calls for censorship like this before. What’s happening today:

Amazon, Apple, Roku and YouTube are facing increased calls to drop the National Rifle Association’s TV channel from their streaming services, as backlash against the organization grows following a Florida school shooting last week that killed 17 people.

On Thursday, Brad Chase ― a friend of Daniel Reed, the father of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student who survived the shooting ― started a petition urging Amazon to drop the channel.

“The NRA has long ignored its role in promoting gun violence and betrayed the names of good and responsible gun owners,” Chase wrote on the petition’s page. “It’s time to hold them, and their partners, accountable … a company like Amazon should not be spreading their message.”

But compare these calls for television networks to drop pro-NRA views with the calls NRA supporters used to make to television networks to pressure them to drop anti-NRA views instead.

In the case of Laugh-In, a precursor to shows like Saturday Night Live and often lauded for its humorous handling of topics of public interest, it appears that gun control was one topic that was off-limits to it. From a letter Dan Rowan wrote in October 1973, lamenting his show’s inability to do a send-up of America’s gun control laws because the TV network was too afraid of the NRA to allow Laugh-in take it on:

…[T]here are so many things we can’t talk about because [the network is] running so damn scared. We have been trying to get a gun control piece on since the beginning of the season, and they are so afraid of the NRA lobby we haven’t been able to. Now I don’t know one solid argument against the control of hand guns and we will keep trying but that’s just one example of the problem.

(From the book, “A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. McDonald, 1967-1974.“)

Granted, this comment came up in the context of Rowan’s broader frustration with a much more general culture of fear at the network, which appears to have been predicated on licensing concerns due to the saber-rattling of eventually-deposed Vice President Spiro Agnew. But the essential point remains that pressure by people with one set of views was preventing the airing of any contrary views. And so the future inherited ignorance on the subject, because that’s what censorship gives it.

Television is not what it was in the 1970s, when the major networks served as gatekeepers. Now Amazon, Apple, and Roku et al play the role of the gatekeepers. And the consequences of asking them to close their gates to certain ideas will be the same now as they were then: the loss of important discourse, discourse we need in order to achieve meaningful and lasting change.

There are of course a few points to note here. One is that asking television networks to censor is different than asking other businesses to cut ties to organizations whose views may be odious. Withdrawing sponsorships, for instance, takes away the oxygen an entity needs to survive as a viable enterprise. True, cutting off an avenue for expression may certainly make spreading its ideas more difficult, and perhaps cut down on its income, but it can at most damage the organization. It doesn’t get rid of its ideas. Its ideas will persist.

Furthermore these are calls for private censorship, not public censorship, the latter of which the First Amendment applies to. The First Amendment also protects calls for private censorship, but it doesn’t make them a good idea. And calls for private censorship have a habit of leaking into public policy. Laugh-In was produced in an age where its network’s FCC license was threatened. Apple, YouTube, Roku et al exist in an age where reactive legislatures keep finding themselves tempted to slap the hands of technology companies, whether it’s a good idea to or not. It’s not a healthy reflex to look to banning an idea as a way to deal with an undesirable one, and it would not be good to become so inured to responding this way in a private context that we tempt in in the public one. The First Amendment doesn’t automatically stop every censoring policy, and a lot of damage to discourse can occur before the First Amendment can put an end to an unconstitutional regulatory response.

But the reason it’s not a healthy response is because banning ideas is not an effective way to deal with them. The only way to defeat bad ideas is in the marketplace of ideas, where through open conversation a better consensus can evolve. There are no shortcuts; better ideas can’t win the day by trying to suppress contrary ones. Pushing for censorship that favors certain ideas only creates a vacuum where those ideas can become artificially distorted and more extreme, with no countervailing views available to temper them. And it risks having those very same preferred ideas later shut out, because restricting public discourse to only some ideas is not the same thing as convincing anyone of their merit.

What is happening to the NRA now is testament to this reality: suppressing gun control discussion didn’t give the NRA a world where those contrary ideas no longer existed. Instead it gave itself a world where its own views arguably became more extreme and now stand to be repudiated – or even themselves potentially suppressed.

But such anti-NRA suppression would be unfortunate, for the exact same reason that it was wrong, and ultimately ineffective, when the NRA did it. Censorship only inhibits progress. Meaningful and lasting change only happens when minds are changed, and that can only happen when people can talk freely about the issues affecting them. Perhaps the NRA thought its views had prevailed when it was able to control the public discussion about guns, but the backlash today shows that it was a fleeting and feeble victory. Those who wish to push an alternative policy agenda now should heed that lesson, to make sure that any gains they hope to make are not equally feeble and fleeting.

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