I have started reading the WWI memoir of a British journalist, Philip Gibbs, called Now It Can Be Told. At least part of the reason for the title is that during the war, what he saw could not be told because of military censorship. Gibbs’ description of the censors’ modus operandi is worth quoting at some length:
It seemed the G.H.Q.―mysterious people in a mysterious place―were drawing up rules for war correspondence and censorship; altering rules made the day before, formulating new rules for tomorrow, establishing precedents, writing minutes, initialing reports with, “Passed to you,” or, “I agree,” written on the margin. The censors who lived with us and traveled with us and were our friends, and read what we wrote before the ink was dry, had to examine our screeds with microscopic eyes and with infinite remembrance of the thousand and one rules. Was it safe to mention the weather? Would that give any information to the enemy? Was it permissible to describe the smell of chloride-of-lime in the trenches, or would that discourage recruiting? That description of traffic on the roads of war, with transport wagons, gun-limbers, lorries, mules―how did that conflict with Rule No. 17a (or whatever it was) prohibiting all mention of movements of troops?
This brought to mind my post about the struggles of the Alberta Court of Appeal in defining hate speech. To be sure, there is a great deal of difference between trying to eliminate one particular, and narrowly, if imprecisely, defined sort of undesirable speech and the sort of comprehensive censorship which Gibbs describes. There might also be a difference―at least the common law’s traditional position was that there was a great difference―between “prior restraints,” the requirement of the state’s permission to publish (the imprimatur―”let it be printed”), and the possibility of punishment or liability after publication.
Still, the two cases illustrate just how difficult any attempt to prohibit some speech on the basis of its content is bound to be. Perhaps paradoxically, the difficulty is especially acute if the censors enforcing the prohibition try to go about it in good faith and with the general sense that they should not prohibit or punish more than is necessary. It is easy enough to be a brutal censor and just prohibit anything at all in case of the slightest doubt. But being a conscientious censor is very hard indeed.
Of course, something being difficult is not a conclusive reason for refraining from it. For instance, it is difficult to maintain the law of defamation while respecting freedom of speech, but I think that there are good reasons not to give up trying, as the U.S. pretty much have. Nonetheless, the difficulty of censorship is a good reason (among many others of course) for having as little of it as possible.