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Censorship at Every Turn

Daylong Event Focuses on Effects of Censorship

April 27, 2010

By Valerie Orleans

In her media law classes, Genelle Belmas, associate professor of communications, often discovers that her students’ understanding of censorial behavior ends at “I can say what I want to say.” Of course, it’s not surprising. That attitude mirrors what most Americans believe.

On Friday, April 30, campus and community members can attend a free daylong event, “Censorship at Every Turn,” featuring a panel of experts who will discuss the role of censorship, copyright, First Amendment and official and unofficial media censorship in America. The 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. program will be held in the Titan Student Union.

“Censorship is a government function,” Belmas explains. “If the government makes certain forms of communication illegal — such as child pornography — that makes it official. However the Motion Picture Association of America is not a government agency. They are a private, unofficial censoring body that rates movies (PG, R, NP-17, X).”

So if the government does not mandate ratings, why do filmmakers care so much? The answer is simple — because most theaters won’t carry films that aren’t rated.

“Censorship is a troubling concept for many,” said Belmas. “It’s also misunderstood. For instance, we’re very proud of the First Amendment and the free speech protections it provides. Yet most Americans don’t approve of flag burning. But, whether you agree with it or not, that is a form of expression. And, as such, it is protected.”

Laws also may change. For instance, child pornography is, in no uncertain terms, illegal.

The Supreme Court ruled that the value of the film is overridden by the harm done to the child. Earlier this year, animal rights activists tried to apply the same logic to films that show animals being harmed (such as pit bull fights). The Supreme Court ruled that the law attempting to regulate these films was invalid because it was over broad and could be applied to depictions of Spanish bullfighting or documentaries on hunting. Regulations on speech must generally be narrowly drawn.

Other “free speech” arguments that have been recently been in the news include what to do about folks who heckle or disrupt speakers or events.

“We call it the heckler’s veto,” said Belmas. “But these are important issues. Why is what a speaker has to say more important than what a member of the public wants to say? Yet, we have invited a speaker and given him/her a platform and the audience wants to hear the speaker, not this other person. What are the rights of the audience or the group who has invited the speaker? These are all interesting questions.”

The April 30 program will feature panelists from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Fox Broadcasting, Parents Television Council and Chapman University’s Law School.

The afternoon will feature a screening of the documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” that provides an in-depth look at how films are rated in America. After the screening, director Kirby Dick, as well as two of the investigators featured in the film, Becky Altringer and Lindsay Howell, will discuss media censorship.

“Our goal is to educate the public about what freedom of expression really means and how important it is to American democracy,” said Belmas.

For more information, visit or contact Genelle Belmas at 657-278-3116. The event is sponsored in partnership with the Liberty Tree Initiative, First Amendment Center and McCormick Foundation.

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