The Comstock Laws of 1873, the most successful censorship regime, were used by Republicans to banish reformist impulses under the Civil War Thesis that reached its peak under then-President Grant. (That's Anthony Comstock himself to the right, from Wikipedia.)
If you can't describe the sexual violence and degradation attendant to the rise of industrial New York, you can't possibly change it.
The great successes of the Progressive Movement, such as Jacob Riis' classic How the Other Half Lives, lay in describing this reality so it could be addressed. Forcing attention on what needed reforming required defying what had become the common concept of the law.
The Hays Office, and the motion picture code of the 1930s, was also intensely political. (That's Will Hays there, from Wikipedia.) While it was first proposed as an attempt to put down liberals during the Flapper Era it eventually became a key tool for New Deal Liberalism, which used movies as propaganda, both to sell the New Deal itself and, later, the fight against Adolph Hitler.
As media choices expanded, the rise of a new Political Thesis is accompanied mainly by an attempt to ride one side's ideas out of broadcasting. The censorship of the Smothers Brothers was just one example, as popular rock acts were ridden off broadcast TV and exiled to the new FM band. This did not impact their popularity -- it actually made the musicians more money -- but the political aim, to take rock's political ideas out of the "mainstream" debate -- was accomplished.
During any time of political crisis, when media executives become unclear on what the rules are, where the boundaries should be, the dominant entertainment form becomes pure fantasy. The Jack Benny Program was a fantasy. The TV shows of the late 1960s -- whether comedies like Green Acres or nominal dramas like I Spy -- were fantasies. Today's reality shows, like American Idol, are fantasies. Such shows become popular because people aren't certain what can be said, or should be said, about the underlying reality of the times.
It's in this historical context that we should see the Imus flap. For the first time in literally decades, left-wing pressure has halted a right-wing show. A boundary has been set, on the right, against political speech. Ritualistic personal abuse now draws a red flag. People are on the lookout.
Which is why the right is now so obsessed with trying to go after ghetto rap and Rosie O'Donnell. Al Sharpton is happy to work with them on the first -- gansta rappers are his political enemies far more than they are Fox's. The attempt to go after O'Donnell is an attempt to create an equivalency, to restore the status quo ante, to TV's political debate.
As I mentioned yesterday, liberals smell blood in the water. Can we really ride Hannity and Limbaugh and Beck out by saying that racial or sexual or personal abuse won't be tolerated, then squeezing down on their acts until they're either forced out or neutered? This is the right's fear.
My fear is that we risk going too far, as in Tim O'Reilly's attempt to create a "voluntary code of conduct" for this medium, which in fact would be mandatory, enforced by companies like Typepad and ISPs. (That's Tim O'Reilly to the left, from his blog.)
There are laws against harassment and every blog post, every
comment on a blog post, creates a record under which existing laws may
Trying to squelch speech we fear doesn't squelch the thoughts which give rise to the speech. I'd much rather have the evidence of your evil heart out in the open, where it can be prosecuted later, in the fullness of time, when you either act-out your inanity or seek some position of trust in society.
Let censorship remain the limited tool of riding people out of the
mainstream. Don't try to clean the corners of thought. That way lies
Real censorship is
like mandated prayer in schools. As Orson Scott Card said on that
issue, if it's strong enough to do good it will do harm. And if it's
weak enough not to do harm, it can't possibly do any good.