Counterpoint: The Problem with Film Censorship Might not be MPAA

I Spit on Your GraveEarlier this week, Michael D. Brown, Former Under Secretary of Homeland Security and Huffington Post contributor announced in his column that “freedom of speech in this country is under attack,” after several newspapers bowed to religious pressure and pulled a controversial comic strip from the long running series Non Sequitur, titled “Where’s Muhammad.” While the strip doesn’t actually feature Muhammad, it was deliberately provocative, making a political punchline out of someone else’s beliefs. Cool. Freedom of speech. I’m 100% down with that. What troubles me about Brown’s editorial wasn’t that the first thing the Former Under Secretary of Homeland Security does when he gets his paper is run to the funnies section, but that he is oblivious to just how right he is.

You see, in both the papers he cites, the Denver Post and the Washington Post, what you also didn’t find this past weekend were advertisements for that weekend’s release of the horror remake I Spit on Your Grave. Unrated after 5 submissions to the MPAA – each receiving the dreaded NC-17, and earning it every time, I assure you – the film was only able to open on 12 screens nationwide. You see, Christian fundamentalist groups have long threatened theater and video store chains with boycotts if they carry or show films carrying the NC-17 rating – and they did so before it existed when it was called the X rating. (Fun fact, there is no XXX rating; that was a marketing gimmick invented by the porn industry.) Newspapers and television stations are similarly barred (by threat of boycott by these same religious groups) from accepting advertising on behalf of NC-17 rated films.

Brown is angry because a small group of religious extremists believe so strongly that it is a sin to draw or view the image of Muhammad that they are pressuring institutions into avoiding doing so, whether they plan to buy those papers or not. I’m angry because a small group of religious extremists believe so strongly that it is a sin to view sex or extreme violence in movies that they are pressuring institutions into avoiding doing so, whether they plan to attend those movies or not. The difference? In this country one extremist group is bigger than the other.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Brown; I just think he’s short sighted and wrong to think that this is in some way a new attack on our Freedom of Speech. Speech has ALWAYS, since the dawn of history and especially throughout the history of this nation, been inhibited by religion. As a very religious person, I am offended any time someone mocks or gets in the face of someone else’s religion, so of course I was offended by the Non Sequitur comic. But as a practicing Christian, I am bothered by the blind eye turned by my Christian brothers and sisters towards one type of censorship, while they are busy hollering about another. The recent spate of intrusions on our newspapers and television shows isn’t the beginning of a war on our freedoms; it is the example of what happens when you let this kind of thing run amok too long. After all, it was easy for these papers to make their decision not to run the strip, because they bow to this kind of pressure all the time.

The film and blogging industries need to reframe their argument. The problem with film censorship in this country isn’t the MPAA branding films NC-17; it is religious groups trying to keep us from seeing them. People are finally seeing censorship from the other side. Their views are being neutered and omitted in the press. There is a lot of anger out there over this issue that can be used for good instead of evil. We need to stop thinking about softening the ratings of those films not meant for children to begin with, and begin arguing that we have the God given right, as Americans, to watch what we want, when we want and no fundamentalist extremist group is going to tell us different. Right?

Let’s see Michael D. Brown argue that in his next column.