Charles Willeford on Censorship

charles willefordThe controversial decision to replace the word “nigger” with “slave” in an edition of Huckleberry Finn has prompted a lot of discussion and commentary over the last couple of days. Earlier today I was reminded of something I read awhile back, an editorial that Charles Willeford wrote on censorship that appeared in The Palm Beach Post on June 26th, 1960.

It’s entirely possible that if Mark Twain had been born 100 years later that he would have been a crime writer. Consider these two Willeford quotes that aren’t from the editorial:

“the veneer of our modern American civilization is as thin as the gold on a rented wedding ring.”

“Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor.”

The editorial is presented in its entirety below:

‘Censored’ Magazines Under The Counter

The overzealous activities of Mr. Joel Davis’ Wowser Committee and its supporters are already having detrimental effects in our city, and it is high time (I hope only that it is not too late) for the responsible members of this community to speak out against this unusual group before more damage is done.

Recently, I stopped at a newsstand to pick up a copy of a magazine, only to be informed by the proprietor that he had been “advised” to keep this publication “under the counter,” I was astonished. This is a famous magazine that has published the work of seventeen Nobel Prizewinners since it began publication some thirty years ago. But a censor had objected (he would not tell me her name) to its open display because of a particular photograph in the magazine. The photograph? That of an Academy Award, Emmy Award actress. Because the actress’s movies had been banned by the Roman Catholic church the woman censor gave as her reason for removing the magazine: “If my children are not allowed to see the movies, they shouldn’t be allowed to see her photo in a magazine eother.” — Not that it makes much difference, but the actress was fully clothed in the photo…

There is a graphic example of the inevitable results of censorship, once it gets started. There is no end to I; there is a snowball effect that takes censorship from the wrong but well-meaning to the wrong and the ridiculous.

For those who would sit in judgment over the reading material of others, I suggest a Holy Bible reference, Romans XIV:14 — “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself, but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”

These wise words are still applicable to modern life: If a person is offended by a movie, he doesn’t have to attend; If a television program is offensive, he can twist the dial, and if a book, magazine, or comic book appears “unclean” to his eyes, it does not have to be purchased. Self-censorship is the only sane censorship in a civilized society. There is no minority group in West Palm Beach, or in the world for that matter, qualified to determine what I shall read or what anyone else should read.

The sanctimonious excuse presented by wowser groups is usually the hackneyed standby that “we must protect our children from salacious literature.” A noble thought, but as a parent, I can protect my own children without any help. The morals protection of children is a job for parents, not outsiders.

When an adult male or female in this city must ask for a national magazine from “under the counter,” a magazine that is sent through the mails via subscriptions, and sold openly on newsstands all over the United States, the time is overdue to disband this ill-advised censorship committee in West Palm Beach.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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