Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net, by Charles Ess

Begging the Question of Legitimate Restrictions on Free Speech

Given that censorship is but one form of restriction on speech among many others, our debate begs the question if we begin by accepting that all forms of restriction count as "censorship."

That is, given the range of restrictions we normally accept on speech, the question should be: are some restrictions on speech legitimate (ranging from self-regulation to censorship), where some forms of speech (e.g., in the form of snuff pornography) arguably lead to harm? But if this is our question, to ask: Is censorship ever justified? already begs the question by assuming that the only form of restriction is censorship - a form few will likely endorse.

In other words, to couch the question in terms of censorship stacks the rhetorical deck against any form of restriction on speech, even the most ordinary and useful kinds - because all possible restrictions, by definition within the phrasing of the question, are noxious censorship. Similarly, to juxtapose "free speech" with "censorship" likewise stacks the deck against restrictions on speech: "free speech" covers all forms of speech, no matter how benevolent or malevolent, with the highly value- laden term "free."

To solve this dilemma requires -- rephrasing the question.

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