The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America
by D.W. Griffith
(Palala Press, September 2015)

In 1916, Hollywood filmmaker W.D. Griffith published a book called The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America. Although much of the book concerns matters that were chiefly pertinent to his era, the overall concepts he examines apply to a digital online world and any form of censorship as much as they did to silence motion pictures.

The book was released in response to efforts to have his 1914 film The Birth of a Nation banned. Based on the novel The Klansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr., the movie depicted the Civil War and Reconstruction from a Dunning School perspective, i.e. the “Lost Cause” interpretation; one of the highest grossing movies ever, it drew audiences as large as its controversy.

At that time, the First Amendment guarantee of free speech was applied to the federal government, not the states. As a result, there were city censorship boards that could prohibit movie theaters from showing films. In Los Angeles, the local branch of the NAACP attempted to have The Birth of a Nation banned.

Despite the film’s positive portrayal of the KKK as veritable modern-day Knights of the Round Table, Griffith was unprepared for the intense hostility to the film; the backlash inspired him to create the 1916 film Intolerance.

Moreover, he was incensed at the idea that a handful of government officials could decide what audiences were allowed to watch.

“Under censorship, one man can dictate the thought of the millions,” he wrote.

It’s important to understand Griffith’s vision for motion pictures; even though talkies wouldn’t be introduced for another ten years, he believed movies would replace the written word as a form of education. Rather than history books, people would watch a film about a historical period.

With that in mind, it is understandable why he would be so alarmed at the notion of film censorship; whoever controlled film could control how and what people were taught. That line of thinking would eventually lead to censorship of books, too.

“The motion picture is a medium of expression as clean and decent as any mankind has ever discovered,” he wrote. “A person that would allow the suppression of this form of speech would unquestionably submit to the suppression of that (word unknown) we all consider so highly: the printing press. We believe that we have as much right to present the facts of history as we see them, on the motion picture screen, as a Guizot, a Bancroft, a Ferrari, or a Woodrow Wilson has to write these facts in his history.”

Yet Griffith also saw motion pictures as an art. While moral “reformers” of his day highlighted what they saw as degeneracy and immorality celebrated in movies, he viewed their campaigns as an attack on genuine artistic endeavors.

“Intelligent opposition to censorship in the beginning would have nipped the evil in the bud,” he wrote. “But the malignant pygmy has matured into a Caliban. Today the censorship of moving pictures, throughout the entire country, is seriously hampering the growth of the art. Had intelligent opposition to censorship been employed when it first made itself manifest it could easily have been overcome. But the pigmy child of that day has grown to be, not merely a man, but a giant…whose forces of evil are so strong that he threatens that priceless heritage of our nation—freedom of expression.”

Arguments for free speech have come in various forms throughout history. Utilitarian John Stuart Mill touted the societal benefits of allowing people to speak their minds, even if they were wrong. However, Griffith took a different tack in his book: censorship ultimately destroys beauty and truth found in art.

He writes:

Had the modern censors existed in past ages, and followed out their theories to a logical conclusion, there would have been written no Iliad of Homer; there would not have been written for the glory of the human race that grand cadence of uplift called the Bible; there would have been no Goethe. There would have been no thrilling, beautiful dramas given us as the grandest heritage of the English- speaking race—the plays of Shakespeare. And even today, none of these creations would these worthy censors leave in our possession, had they their way.

Griffith also notes that what is considered verboten by “moral reformers” all depends on who the reformers are. “All new things in the world, including the Christian religion and the printing press, at their beginnings have been considered as instruments of evil and subject to suspicion. The motion picture has had to undergo the same ordeal that seems to be directed at all new things.”

Interestingly, Griffith also criticizes the idea that the depiction of anything immoral is an endorsement of it. He points out that to omit these things from a story “would make absolutely impossible the motion picture as an entertainment or as an art. What would the censors have done to the classics? Search your minds for any story worth telling, or any play that is worth seeing, that does not in some way show vice in some form.”

To sanitize a film of anything unpleasant would create “ridiculous, insipid mediocrity that could not possibly interest anyone. A motion picture of this class would be as interesting and efficient as a newspaper that never steps on anyone’s toes, and you can imagine how people would be interested in that kind of a newspaper.”

What’s fascinating is that Griffith anticipates the same argument for censorship as depicted in the movie Fahrenheit 451 in which books are burned because they offend people. Since any book is bound to offend somebody, the fire captain declares “we must burn the books, Montag—all the books.”

Griffith writes:

Let those who tell us to uplift our art, invest money in the production of an historic play of the time of Christ. They will find this cannot be staged without incurring the wrath of a certain part of our people. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, if produced, will tread upon the toes of another part of our people. I was considering the production of the history of the American people only this last year. It got into the papers. From all over the country I was strongly advised that this was not the time for a play on the American Revolution, because the English and their sympathizers would not take kindly, during these emotional war times, the part the English played in the wars of the American Revolution, and that the pro-Germans would not care to see the Hessians play the part they would play in the story of our freedom.

One of the most insightful observations made by Griffith strips away the methods of censorship to get at its essence.

He writes:

So long as this matter of censorship is allowed, so long as in a city the size of Chicago, for example, one or more men may tell two million persons what they shall or shall not see in a motion picture in the theaters of Chicago—so long as this is allowed—so long as even one man is given the privilege over another of deciding for him the thing he shall or shall not see in the way of even the sinless of motion pictures—then there is no such thing as entire freedom of speech in that community.

Too often people get caught up in the means rather than the ends. If a handful of corporate bureaucrats can effectively suppress a viewpoint or make certain ideas and concepts inaccessible to the general public—against their wishes—it is the same outcome as that of government bureaucrats prohibiting such expressions through a legal diktat. Regardless of whether such power should be legally permitted even in the private sector, those concerned about liberty should be just as alarmed when it occurs by forces other than the state.

Obviously, much has changed since 1916. Film and radio had been supplanted by social media as a means of influencing society and culture. Censor boards are been replaced with Facebook moderators and Orwellian “fact checkers.” It is no longer government that one typically has to fear of censoring speech, but multinational corporations via deplatforming. The “reformers” have also transformed from self-appointed champions of moral virtue to cultural Marxist propaganda.

The results can be seen in every aspect of modern art, whether it be literature, film, or music. Wherever the new reformers, aka social justice warriors, take over and dictate art, they destroy it and make it ugly. Their primary interest is not creating beautiful or good art, but as a platform to preach and instill their beliefs into the masses.

One can critique the historical facts presented in The Birth of a Nation. One can also question Griffith’s view on the role of film, or point to how the “moral reformers” of our day preach an entirely separate gospel than those we contend with today. However, it is hard to dispute his warnings about the danger of censorship and the harm it causes to art itself and the importance of genuine and authentic artistic expression that can only come with the freedom to do so.

Click here to buy The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America.