The Information Revolution
The Information Revolution: A Hypothetical Case

Throughout history a number far-reaching developments have dramatically changed the lives of human beings. About 8,000 years ago, people began to grow food and settle in cities. Starting in the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution caused hundreds of millions of people to change their way of life. By the end of the 20th Century, computer technology again changed the world. A new "revolution" has engulfed much of the planet.

Today, as we enter the 21st Century, the Information Revolution is making a difference to more and more people. Nowadays, a nation's economic success and even survival are based on the control of ideas, words and images. Information on scientific discoveries and technological developments are as important to nations in the year 2000 as colonial possessions were 200 years ago.

Imagine that you are in the near future. Ideas, words and images have also created serious problems for countries like the United States. Terrorist groups now spread their radical propaganda at will.

Since the use and misuse of information have become so important, some American leaders have recently argued for a new centralized government agency to detect, prevent and stop the communication of ideas, words and images that pose "a clear and present danger" to the people of the United States. For this purpose, the Bureau of Information Control Act has been proposed in Congress.

The Bureau of Information Control Act

A. Purpose and Jurisdiction

This act establishes within the Department of Justice a Bureau of Information Control. This agency is authorized by Congress to detect, prevent and stop the unauthorized communication of any ideas, words, or images that, in the judgment of the agency, pose "a clear and present danger" of violating laws of the United States in the following areas:

  1. Scientific information necessary for the security and defense of the United States;

  2. Scientific and technological information necessary for the economic prosperity and competitiveness of the United States;

  3. Any ideas, words or images threatening the peace and order of American society such as:

a. speeches or other material calling for violent protest or the violent overthrow of the government of the United States,

b. speeches or other material maliciously attacking a race or religion,

c. movies and recordings glamorizing illegal drug use, promiscuous sex or violence.

B. Procedural Authority

Upon finding that information in any of the areas defined above poses "a clear and present danger" to the people of the United States, the Bureau of Information Control is authorized by Congress to initiate the following procedure:

  1. The Bureau of Information Control will request the offending person or party to immediately cease any plans or acts involving production, publication, or other communication of information or material in question.

  2. If the offending person or party refuses to cease its plans or acts, the Bureau of Information Control will seek a federal court order to stop the activity in question. This procedure will replace the current practice of officials in different government departments independently requesting such orders.

  3. Once a court order is in place, an offending person or party who violates it will be subject to fines, imprisonment or other penalties to be assessed by the federal courts.

A Simulated Congressional Hearing on the Bureau of Information Control Act

1. Divide the class into three role groups:

a. Citizens for a Strong America: This group supports the proposed act.

b. Citizens for a Free America: This group opposes the proposed act.

c. House Committee on the Judiciary: This group will vote to recommend or not recommend the proposed act to the full House of Representatives.

2. Preparation for the Simulation

a. All participants should be familiar with the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights as well as the following terms: censorship, prior (or previous) restraint and "clear and present danger."

b. All participants should also read and understand the excerpts provided from Supreme Court decisions on censorship (see "The Supreme Court and Censorship," below).

c. The members of the citizen groups supporting and opposing the Bureau of Information Control Act should meet to develop as many arguments as possible in favor of their position. These groups should also develop counter-arguments to use against their opponents.

d. The House Committee members should prepare questions to ask the citizen group representatives during the simulated congressional hearing.

3. The Congressional Hearing

a. The House Committee members should select a chairperson to conduct the hearing.

b. Each citizen group should select a chief lobbyist to present the group's main arguments to the House Committee. The chief lobbyist for Citizens for a Strong America will speak first.

c. After each chief lobbyist speaks, the House Committee members should be prepared to ask questions concerning why the proposed act is or is not a good idea.

d. After both citizen groups have made their presentations and the House Committee members have had an opportunity to ask questions, the House Committee chairperson will announce an "open forum." At this point, the chairperson will recognize any members of the citizen groups who wish to speak for or against the proposed act.

e. Following the "open forum," the House Committee chairperson will ask the committee members if they wish to amend or change the proposed act. Any amendments or changes should be discussed by the House Committee and passed by a simple majority vote.

f. Finally, the House Committee chairperson will call for each committee member, in turn, to announce his or her vote and, at the same time, give reasons for recommending or not recommending the proposed act. The House Committee chairperson will vote last and then announce the voting result. A simple majority is needed to recommend the proposed Bureau of Information Control Act to the full House of Representatives.

The Supreme Court and Censorship

Government Censorship Is Sometimes Justified

1. "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has the right to prevent." --Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)

2. "That utterances inciting to the overthrow of organized government by unlawful means, present a sufficient danger of substantive evil to bring their punishment within the range of legislative discretion, is clear. Such utterances, by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the State. They threaten breaches of the peace and ultimate revolution . . . . A single revolutionary spark may kindle a fire that, smoldering for a time, may burst into a sweeping and destructive conflagration." --Justice Edward T. Sanford in Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925)

3. ". . . it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance." --Justice William J. Brennan in Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)

Government Censorship Is Not Justified

4. ". . . the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas--that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." --Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dissenting in Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)

5. "I can find in the First Amendment no room for any censor whether he is scanning an ditorial, reading a news broadcast, editing a novel or a play, or previewing a movie." --Justice William O. Douglas in Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents, 360 U.S. 684 (1954)

6. "The theory of our Constitution is that every citizen may speak his mind and every newspaper express its view on matters of public concern and may not be barred from speaking or publishing because those in control of government think what is said or written is unwise, false, or malicious." --Justice Arthur J. Goldberg in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 255 (1964)

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Write an essay of about 100 words explaining your view of the Bureau of Information Control Act proposal.

  2. Pick out the Supreme Court excerpt with which you agree the most. Explain in your own words the viewpoint expressed in this excerpt. Why do you agree with it?

  3. Is government censorship ever justified? If so, when? If not, why not?

For Further Reading

De Grazia, Edward. Censorship Landmarks. New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1969 Public Agenda Foundation. Freedom of Speech: Where to Draw the Line (National Issues Forum). Dayton, Ohio: Domestic Policy Association, 1987.