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Commentary / Censorship, harm and reality in the modern university: the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as cautionary tale

Commentary / Censorship, harm and reality in the modern university: the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as cautionary tale

By Robin Vose

One needn’t look far to find censorship controversies on university campuses these days. And all too often student activists, professors, administrators and outside observers are polarized into rigidly opposed camps. Some claim to defend “free speech” and academic freedom, seemingly at any cost. Others invoke principles of “harm prevention” to justify what they see as necessary curbs on certain types of communication. The pressures to pick a side, along with the consequences of making that choice, are all but impossible to avoid for those of us who live and work in the university milieu.

Such choices are further complicated by the political implications of many issues. We are tempted to defend ideas we agree with, while condemning the potential dangers of positions we oppose. But this cuts both ways, with competing rhetorics of free speech and harm prevention being selectively deployed on all sides. Free speech, censorship, and harm prevention frequently become pawns in larger political struggles.

The notion of harm, in particular, has proven endlessly malleable across the political spectrum. Yet while it might be tempting to simply embrace a partisan position and turn a blind eye to any resulting double-standards when it comes to censorship, commitment to the integrity of higher education requires more. The problem of balancing freedoms against potential harms in academic discourse needs to be faced squarely and honestly, in all its complexity, and its resolution must not be abandoned to the forces of “all-or-nothing” polarization.

“Harm” is of course a subjective term that covers a wide range of experiences. Outright attacks on one’s physical and material well-being are bad enough, and generally liable to criminal prosecution; but serious spiritual and psychological damage can also result from conflict, trauma and abuse. Historic power imbalances resulting from discriminatory institutional structures further exacerbate such harms, even when taking the form of casual, unintentional, and/or near imperceptible “micro-aggressions”. Harm is complicated precisely because it can take so many forms, because it varies according to context, and because it is subject to different evaluations—even by the same individuals, whose perceptions may change over time. But for this very reason it deserves to be given thorough consideration. Potential for harm should never be ignored when examining the implications of speech. But neither should it be used as an absolute rationale for justifying censorship.

Nor, it turns out, is this a new problem—and it’s worth noting how efforts to prevent harmful forms of expression have fared historically. The idea of “preventing harm” was in fact precisely what drove the Catholic Church hierarchy’s Index of Prohibited Books to be maintained for over 400 years. Texts such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jules Bois’ Le Satanisme were explicitly banned to prevent reader exposure to materials that would (in the censors’ judgment) cause them real spiritual, physical, and social harm. Milton and Bois were suspected of exposing their readers to potential demonic attack, just as were “flawed” exorcism manuals such as Girolamo Menghi’s Flagellum Daemonum.

Early modern censors, both secular and clerical, also agreed that “immoral” literature presented a real danger to the health of society as well as to vulnerable individuals. We might now dismiss such concerns as the prudery of another time, but representations of gratuitous sexual violence in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, or the imprisonment and abuse of a young servant girl by her master in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, still have the power to upset readers. Both were placed on Church Indexes, alongside works deemed equally harmful for their anti-Catholicism, or their promotion of what censors took to be dangerous “fake science”. The latter included much truly dubious quackery, as well as figures like Galileo.

The sincerity of Church efforts to prevent harm may be debated and judged with the benefit of hindsight and shifts in modern sensibilities. But their overall failure has become clear even to the papacy. Milton is still widely read, as are Richardson and Sade in some quarters, while the more obscure works of Bois and Menghi have enjoyed recent revivals thanks to the very notoriety of their censorship. Galileo’s case was especially damaging, not only to a talented scientist and the advancement of astronomy, but to the Church itself—which was forced to reverse its ban as early as 1757, before publicly acknowledging error in 1822 and finally issuing a formal apology for such misguided censorship in 1992. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was increasingly recognized as an embarrassment for this and other reasons long before its final termination in 1966.

The history of the Index’s combination of good intentions and disastrous over-reach, as well as its ignominious dissolution, should serve as a warning for would-be censors in today’s academic world. In particular, the Index’s devastating legacy is worth keeping in mind as we consider whether (and how) to shield students and others from potential harms resulting from exposure to objectionable writings, ideas, or works of art. For censorship inevitably generates its own types of harm, including some that may only become apparent long after the damage has been done.

A case in point would be recent events at Minnesota’s Hamline University, where a Muslim student was offended by an image shown in class. In its zeal to uphold Methodist principles of “doing no harm”, the university took drastic action: a professor’s employment was terminated, and it was publicly announced that similar discipline would result should class content ever cause offence to members of any religion in the future. This overreaction, unsurprisingly, resulted in a great deal of negative publicity and ended up causing far more harm than it prevented. The student complainant has since been forced to relive the original offence many times. Meanwhile the entire university has been subjected to threats and insults as well as legitimate criticism. Far beyond one professor, it appears that several other careers will now be negatively impacted if not ended by this debacle. The university faces an expensive lawsuit and likely loss of future donor revenue; its accreditation is being reviewed; the student body and workforce are divided and demoralized. It remains to be seen if Hamline will ever recover from the reputational damage.

Similarly, by banning the allegedly “divisive” teaching of Critical Race Theory in its universities, the state of Florida has unintentionally turned a previously niche academic field into compulsory reading throughout most of the social sciences elsewhere—while marginalizing its own educational system in the process. The long-term consequences of such authoritarian impositions on school curricula are quite predictable, and indeed the current state of US politics already provides plenty of hints at what happens when a society deliberately avoids educating itself critically and openly about important issues. These harms, as well as the inevitably negative impact of targeted censorship on those who teach, study, and value anti-racist subject matter (including above all the historically oppressed communities that CRT is meant to empower), can hardly be argued to outweigh the putative benefits of protecting students from the discomfort of being exposed to analyses of racial injustice.

Harm prevention was of course never the sole reason for Florida’s ban, Hamline’s dismissal, or the Index’s prohibitions. Censorship is also a weapon with which to lash out at some, while signalling loyalty to others. All the more reason, then, for academic institutions to avoid taking this route when they genuinely seek to both avoid harm as much as possible and remain true to their intellectual mission. Censorship may seem like an easy and even satisfying means of clamping down on ideas, practices, or writings that are perceived as threatening. But history shows again and again how counter-productive it can also be in the long run for everyone—censors, censored, and bystanders alike.

It’s hard for some to accept that they will be exposed to harmful opinions and offensive materials in the course of their university careers. But censorship has never succeeded in changing this fact. On the contrary, it has only made matters worse, while also distracting policy makers from more positive alternatives. A focus on “protecting” vulnerable minorities from occasional manifestations of offensive speech, for example, does nothing to overturn institutional barriers and practices that actually keep those minorities from thriving on campus. Better efforts and investments could also be made to counter distasteful opinions and nurture alternative voices, rather than relying on coercive suppression alone.

Fruitless head-butting over simplistic notions of “freedom” and “harm” has gone on long enough. What is needed now are clear-eyed and historically-informed evaluations of specific conflict situations in all their complexity, wherein the actual well-being and safety of individuals and communities can be weighed against the true overall and long-term harms caused by censorship. In the vast majority of cases, such an analysis will show that resources would be better spent on positive long-term systemic reforms, rather than on short-term—but ultimately very costly and counter-productive—negative exercises in censorship.


Robin Vose is a professor of history at St. Thomas University and author of The Index of Prohibited Books: Four Centuries of Struggle Over Word and Image for the Greater Glory of God. He is also a past president of CAUT.

Originally published in the Index on Censorship

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