Earl’s restaurants, a restaurant chain in Western Canada, has recently come under fire for its “Albino Rhino” house-brewed beer label. The beer has been around since before I was born. The complaints, however, are new. A group is requesting that Earl’s cease production and sale of the beer because its name offends people with the genetic condition albinism. The rhinoceri have yet to comment.

The beer is called “Albino Rhino.” Not “Albino Person.” The name was probably chosen because it rhymes- it’s funny enough to be memorable. Beer companies do this all the time; there are beers called…

“Farmer’s Tan” – not offensive to farmers

“Polygamy Porter” – probably not offensive to polygamists (slogan: “Why have just one?”)

“Hoptimus Prime” – not offensive to… robots?

Granted, there are places in the world where people with albinism are targeted. Those places are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Targeting for violence is tragic, but Albino Rhino beer isn’t being made or sold anywhere near places where albino people are in actual danger. The beer and the social issue are entirely unrelated.

If the lawsuit against Earl’s restaurants is decided in favor of the plaintiffs, our neighbors to the north will have entered into a territory where private action is subject to government censorship. So what does this all mean for us here in the States?  Our government is already over-censoring us, and it needs to stop.  Don’t look at the demise of SOPA and PIPA and think that the government is backing down. Here are my new rules of censorship:

1. The public sphere cannot censor, except for violations of intellectual property laws.

2. Private institutions can self-censor, but cannot be required to do so by outside forces.

Rule #2 won’t cause much dispute. But just in the past few days, New York public schools have egregiously violated the first rule by banning a long list of words from appearing on standardized tests.

What sorts of polemic, incendiary language has now been wiped clean from testing in New York?

They banned the word “dinosaur” out of fear of offending Creationists. I dare anyone to go out and find me a Creationist who denies the existence of dinosaurs…because that is totally not what Creationism is. For all the liberal chatter about the need to understand all points of view, the school board clearly has no idea what Creationists believe.

Also banned? The word “vacation,” because wealthy students can afford to take more vacations than middle or working-class students. We are watching a massive bureaucracy chase its tail: every student in New York gets Summer Vacation, Winter Vacation, and Spring Vacation. But on their tests, they better not see the word “vacation.”

Other banned words include “dancing” and “rats.” You could hear much, much worse just by…walking down a street in New York City.

Censorship isn’t just about schools. Have you listened to trashy, wonderful, top-40 radio lately? You may have noticed that whenever a singer says “G*d damn” – the “God” gets bleeped but the “damn” doesn’t. When the government decides what is offensive, they sometimes decide wrong. It’s also worth mentioning the movie Bully, was originally rated “R.” The movie was made so that children can see just how bad bullying is. The MPAA corrected its error only when the language in the film was sufficiently watered-down.

Let’s not pretend that public institutions can shield people from everything that might make them feel sad or confused. Let’s not pretend that they should even try. It’s a family’s job to manage those natural parts of life.

A family is the most private institution of all, and therefore falls squarely under Rule 2: Private institutions can censor.

If you don’t want your child to watch Jersey Shore or listen to Lil Wayne, you are within your rights as a parent. But once you send that kid to a public school – you give up some level of control over his or her education. Don’t like it? Lots of people don’t like it! That’s why people are flocking to charter schools, private schools, and home schools like never before. We all make choices about costs and benefits in education, and no one answer is perfect.

This means that if a public school student is assigned a book a parent doesn’t want them to read – the issue is between the parent and the teacher. No parent should ever assume that what’s wrong for their child is wrong for every other child. Book banners think that way – that a book they don’t like ought to be a book that no one else has the chance to read. I find that line of “reasoning” pretentious.

Families can censor, but no one family can censor a school. That’s not to say it hasn’t been tried.  One mom tried to get the Harry Potter series removed from local public libraries. She could have just told her kids not to read the books, but evidently the books were such a threat that she needed to trot out in front of the school board and the national media. Okay, Potter Mom: Find me one person – one! Who has dabbled in witchcraft as a result of those books. You can’t do it. Just because something violates your morals doesn’t mean it’s a national scourge.

 

It’s equally insane that districts would ban The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catch-22 because they supposedly have immoral messages. (Yep, they have been banned in some places.) If you read any of those books and thought it was upholding an immoral message…you need to go back and read it again. And you can’t do that if it’s banned.

 

Our rights do not stop at another person’s feelings. It’s time for government censorship to end.

Angela Morabito | Georgetown University | Washington, DC | @_AngelaMorabito