Censure comic censors

by Kenneth Leonard

Newspapers have always rallied against censorship in this country; it’s a shame comic strips haven’t been regarded with the same level of protection. Last week, San Diego’s Union-Tribune decided censorship by omission was the best way to handle controversial cartoons courtesy of Doonesbury. But the U-T wasn’t alone: Several newspapers across the country made a similar judgment call, choosing censorship instead of publishing the comic strip.

For those unfamiliar with the comic, Gary Trudeau has never shied away from any topic, so it should not have come as a surprise to anyone when he decided to take on the recent legislative action regarding women’s health and contraceptive issues in various parts of the United States.

The surprising thing was that many of our nation’s newspapers decided you, the reader, are incapable of making your own assessment of the content of a comic strip, so they just went ahead and removed it from the paper. For the sake of clarification, allow me to emphasize this censorious action was taken not once, but six times, and by several major newspapers.

Ah, the newspapers. Those stalwart champions of free speech and steadfast bastions of First Amendment rights didn’t think their readers could handle a cartoon.

What was so controversial about the cartoons? Personally, I think there is a difference between controversy and relevance, and Trudeau’s comics were certainly timely. People are talking about contraception. It’s (incredibly and sadly) one of the hot-button issues of the current GOP presidential nominee race. Doonesbury went after Texas’ mandatory ultrasound abortion laws last week, because it is a relevant issue. By censoring the comic strip, publishers and editors are suppressing appropriate awareness of an important issue, and they are hiding the truth from their readers. I’m not suggesting the truth will solely be found in a comic strip, but certainly the truth exists somewhere in the middle of the conversation.

When any voice is silenced, it becomes more difficult for people to find out what’s really going on. Most citizens believe news sources have an obligation to present the truth in its most unvarnished, raw and naked form. It’s up to the reader to decide what to do with the information the news source provides. As an opinion columnist, I can appreciate a newspaper’s right to promote opinions and editorials, but nothing should be omitted because of content. The comic strips were not profane or obscene, but merely addressed a topic some people may find uncomfortable.

When people in positions of power begin determining what information is allowed to flow into the collective public consciousness, red flags should be popping up all over the place. Read “1984,” people. I know for some of you it isn’t assigned reading, but read it anyway. George Orwell’s novel was meant to serve as a cautionary tale of a society in which people are mentally enslaved. It wasn’t meant to be an instruction manual to the government or press.

Even if I put aside my mentality as a journalist and student of literature and history, censorship is insulting to me as a consumer. I am smart enough to figure out what my own opinion is about a comic strip, and so are you.

The other angle on this story that must be discussed is the fact that, through censorship and an attempt to deprive readers of the comic strip, publishers drew more public attention to the issue at hand and the comic strip itself than would have been caused if they had just run Doonesbury as usual. I mean, let’s be honest, folks. Nobody reads Doonesbury. If not for the ridiculous attempted censorship of the comic, nobody would be talking about it. I actually went online to find the comics so I could see what all the fuss was about, and I’m sure other people did, too. This marks the first time in the history of the world when people specifically sought out the unrated, unfiltered, “director’s cut” edition of, wait for it, Doonesbury.

This whole issue is ridiculous. The publishers who censored the strip should feel like morons, because that’s what they are. This is what happens when a bunch of wealthy conservatives attempt to silence a guy who is satirically critiquing the legislative decisions of a bunch of other wealthy conservatives. Hopefully, the powers-that-be learned something from this experience. Kudos to all of the curious citizens who were not content with having their media censored, and found a way to view the forbidden comic.