Lem Hooper on Censorships
by Ellis Parker Butler
Justice of the Peace Lem Hooper put down his newspaper and, having wiped his spectacles, beamed benevolently upon Court-officer Durfey.
"Well, Durfey," he said, "I see the free-born American's inalienable right of Free Speech is being alienated once more down there in New York."
"Have they been puttin' some more soap-box orators in jail for treason to the Constitution?" asked Durfey.
"Not this time," said Judge Hooper. "So far as I know, Durfey, the street orator may again mount the soap-box when the spirit moves him. For all I've heard he may put a tomato-box on top of the soap-box and shout until he's hoarse for all any one cares. This is more serious, Durfey. The State of New York has passed a law that all movies must be censored, and it is thinking of passing another to censor all the theatres."
"I suppose somebody has been gettin' up some Bolshevik movies and shows," suggested Durfey.
"Well, I've seen nothing to that effect in the papers," said Judge Hooper. "It seems, Durfey, that they have a lot of fanatics down there in New York, and by some hook or crook they've got ahold of the notion that a play is none the better because an actor on the stage says things that a man would be arrested for saying in the audience. They hold that when the drama begins to smell like a dead rat under the floor it is not a case of Free Speech but Loose Smell. They may be right.
"The danger, Durfey, is that every law that gives a board of censors the right to say Thumbs down! to spoiled meat may give it power to say, some day, the same thing to ideas that need to be spoken. There is always a minority, Durfey, and it should have its right to squeak when it is stepped on. For that reason, Durfey, those who are forcing these censorships upon us have the full condemnation of this court.
"You mean the fanatics?" asked Durfey.
"I do not!" said Judge Hooper emphatically. "I've been a fanatic myself, once and again, in a way. I have taken a whack at Free Speech myself. I own that big lot alongside of my house, Durfey, and it was a fine treat to sit on my porch on a Saturday afternoon and see the kids play their baseball there, slugging out home runs and joining together to chase the umpire off the lot. I loved it, Durfey, but the wife kicked. They made too much racket for her. And then those lads from down the creek began to mingle in the game, and the language they used was hideous, Durfey. If there was any vile word they had it, and they shouted it and screamed it in the heat of battle, and when really in earnest they invented a few more that were worse. And it was my lot, you understand, Durfey. I went out and argued with them, but it was no use. They had learned to be foul before they learned to play ball. So I put a tight fence around the lot. There was too much Free Speech for me, Durfey.
"And that's the trouble down there in New York, Durfey, and in other regions as well.
"If a wave of censorships sweeps the country, Durfey -- which it need not -- there will be no need to blame the fanatics. You can blame the lads from down the creek. Nobody wants to kill Free Speech. But when one man that wants to make some easy money goes to an author that wants to make some of the same kind, and they whisper together and tell each other that the low-browed lizard that was in the slime yesterday has the ready-money today, you can bet there's going to be a nasty play produced. They'll stage anything.
"I see by today's paper that the output of movies is but one-third of what is normal. The audiences have melted away. Whenever a screen vamp upheld Free Speech by leaving off another garment somebody stayed home from the next show. What hit the movies was not too much Free Speech but too much Free Screech. The most wonderful method of broadcasting thought, excepting printing alone, has fallen on evil days shamefully soon because some one made a bad guess. We wanted to be amused, but he thought we wanted to be vamped, Durfey. He did not know us.
"And even so, Durfey, censorships are not needed. The courts can stop any bad play or bad motion picture.
"Yes, your honor," said Durfey, "but didn't you yourself only yesterday tell Jack Steinbrek to go ahead and show that film, 'Should Wives Bite Their Husband's Lady Friends?' when you told me it was the worst you ever saw?"
"Now, Durfey!" Judge Hooper cautioned. "None of that, Durfey! We've got to be reasonable. Jack has put a lot of money into that new picture palace of his -- and he always votes right, Durfey, he always votes right!"