Horton Hears A Censor

A number of years ago, when my husband was still practicing architecture, he was presenting a school board with preliminary plans for a school they’d hired him to design. There were a number of decisions on which he wanted their feedback, but the board focused entirely–for an hour!– on arguments over the size of an elevator, and whether it should accommodate one wheelchair or two.

As he left, he ran into a friend, and explained his frustration with the school board’s focus. The friend said something I’ve thought about on multiple occasions since: “people argue about what they understand.” Insightful as that observation was, I think it needs amending to “People argue about what they think they understand.”

Which brings me to censorship, accusations of “cancel culture,” and Dr. Seuss, with a brief side trip to Mr. Potato Head.

The right wing is exercised–even hysterical–and screaming “censorship” about a decision made by the company that controls publication of the Dr. Seuss books. It will suspend publication of six of those sixty-odd books, based upon a determination that  they contain racist and insensitive imagery. The decision didn’t affect “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who” or numerous other titles.

This is not censorship, not only because they aren’t proposing to collect and destroy the numerous copies that already exist but because, in our constitutional system,  only government can censor speech. In fact, a decision by the company that owns the rights to Dr. Seuss’ books is an exercise of that company’s own free speech rights.

Think of it this way: you post something to Twitter, then think better of it and remove that post. You haven’t been censored; you made both the initial decision to post whatever it was and the subsequent decision to remove it.

Or think about that same example in the context of contemporary criticism of so-called “cancel culture.” You post something that other people find offensive. They respond by criticizing you. Your public-sector employer hasn’t punished you and, for that matter, no government entity has taken any action, but many people have expressed disdain or worse. Again–that is neither censorship nor “cancellation.”

The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects us from government actions that suppress the free expression of our opinions or our ability to access particular information or ideas. It doesn’t protect us from the disapproval of our fellow-citizens. It doesn’t even protect us from being sanctioned or fired by our private-sector employer, because that employer has its own First-Amendment right to ensure that messages being publicly communicated by its employees are consistent with its own.

When Walmart decides not to carry a particular book, when a local newspaper (remember those?) rejects an advertisement or refuses to print a letter to the editor, when the manufacturer of “Mr. Potato Head” decides to drop the “Mr,” those entities are exercising their First Amendment rights. They aren’t “censoring.” They aren’t even “cancelling.”

You are within your rights to disagree with the decision by those who own the Dr. Seuss catalogue (actually, that “company” is run by the author’s family, aka the Seuss estate.) Disagreement and criticism are your rights under the First Amendment. You are free to argue that the decision was misplaced, that it constituted over-reaction…whatever. But since the government did not require that decision–or participate in it– it wasn’t censorship. And unless the criticism was accompanied by ostracism–unless it was accompanied by removal of the author’s books from bookstores and libraries–it isn’t cancellation, either.

Americans have a right to freedom of expression. We have no right–constitutional or otherwise– to freedom from criticism. The desire of America’s culture warriors to “own the libs” doesn’t trump that reality.

As for the decision to stop printing and circulating six books with unfortunate portrayals, we’d do well to heed Charles Blow. In a column for the New York Times, Blow reminded readers that the images we present to young children can be highly corrosive and racially vicious.Times article on the controversy noted that  a number of other children’s books have been edited to purge what we now recognize as racist stereotypes. Often, those edits have been made by the authors who wrote the books, who belatedly recognized that they had engaged in hurtful stereotyping.

Agree or disagree with a given decision–whether by the Dr. Seuss estate or by Hasbro, the Potato Head manufacturer–it was a decision they had the right to make and a right that the rest of us have an obligation to respect, even if we disagree.


  1. Thanks. This post reminds me of the cartoons and comic books I saw in the early 1950’s. The Anti Japanese cartoons are still a vivid memory as are the black stereotypes in some comics. “Little Black Sambo” comes to mind. Little minds are sponges. Good Thoughts today prof. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. It’s the look over there trick! Don’t pay attention to all the damning evidence about 1/6, don’t notice that we are refusing to even consider another COVID relief bill.

  3. Sheila; the fact that the school considered wheelchairs was vital and arguing about room for 1 or 2 was, or should have been, a moot point. But it was far ahead of the City of Indianapolis’ Disaster Evacuation Plan circa 1980 when they didn’t include taking wheelchairs with the people sitting in them. During a break I asked Mr. Blankenbaker (I think) about this and he admitted they had not considered that fact. The all-day workshop didn’t end with a Disaster Evacuation Plan so the entire issue was moot.

    In this Dr. Seuss situation, even the term “unfortunate portrayals” is questionable to some and not even close to the level of the removal of books such as “To Kill A Mockingbird” from bookshelves as if that would change the history of racism in this country. Is removing literature thought to be offensive by some covered under freedom of speech in the 1st Amendment? If so, how does this relate to freedom of the press in the same Amendment?

  4. The government also uses private companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google to do their censorship for them in today’s high-tech world. Other tech firms are less known which use the internet and our phones to violate our privacy, but Horton hasn’t brought up that topic yet.

    Under the freedom of expression clause, there is the freedom of the press. The UK ranks 35th, and the US ranks 45th globally. What does that tell you about the governments in those two countries?

    Saying the Fourth Estate is in peril would be an understatement. Biden’s spineless response to Saudi Arabia and our own treatment of Assange are sending clear messages around the world that holding governments accountable can not only be censored or be a crime; it cannot result in your death and dismemberment.

    The personal growth truism of when we know better, we do better, also applies to our collective consciousness as a society. Self-censoring and removing labels done at one level of consciousness should be expected in a growing society and making progress. All too often we use denial or whitewash history. I’d make a comment about Indiana on this scale, but its motto is MAGA – let’s go back to that time in history when we could make racial slurs against the minority and they’d have to accept it.

    I say well done, Suess family and Hasbro. If only our government and the oligarchy that controls it had that same level of consciousness. We’d all be better off.

  5. My cousin posted a Seussian meme about being canceled and censored. I posted a comment:

    “They” are the Seuss heirs that decided to make a change. “They” did not ban the books. “They” did not remove them from shelves or libraries. “They” only decided to stop new printings of a select few books. Racism is sometimes is a subtle thing and only the books with offensive stereotype images were targeted. Intelligent people are allowed to change their minds when new information or understanding is gained.

    I got a private message from her this morning, thanking me for my comment and telling me she had removed the post. I think the scary thing about this whole thing is the manufactured rage that is so easy to react too and seems somewhat reasonable, until you actually try to understand what happened and THINK about it.

    I will have to laugh, because the new way to cancel, ignore or just not think about someone else’s opinion is to just reply with “Cancel Culture”. It is a another loaded political catch phrase that has been weaponized by the right whose effect is almost the opposite of what most users of the phrase intend it to be.

  6. patmcc When I was a kid (late 60s early 70s) our public library in Manassas VA, had 8mm films you could check out. I remember one of the films was an animated cartoon of “Little Black Sambo”. If you want to talk about implicit bias training for a white kids in a white suburb, make sure you start at early age with that kind of stuff.

  7. I think of this more of a “property rights” issue. I don’t care for the notion that companies have first amendment rights to free speech because it lends credence to the absurd notion that corporations are people, rather than entities owned by people.

  8. After the “N” word became totally Politically INcorrect and bleeped out of articles and conversations in movies and TV program; blacks removed the “er” from the end of the “N” word and added an “a” and now use it fluently. Just sayin’

  9. Since Republicans have neither any policies or intent for governance, they latch on to these B.S. “topics”. Todd keeps saying oligarchy, but really the essence of today’s politics lies with the utter capitulation of the Republican party to their corporate donors. Trumpism is merely the latest “look over here” item… as Jane says.

    For every wail of oligarchy, I will offer a wail of eliminating the GOP from any governing office. Imagine what will happen if Greg Abbott gets elected President. He’ll get us all killed.

  10. I’m not sure what the comment about using the N word with an a on the end of it has to do with this article. It’s not a new phenomenon. Some of the Black people that I went to high school with in the 1960s called each other the N word; sometimes meant to insult the target – roughly equivalent to calling someone “white trash” – and other times it was meant as a cool reference, like saying “Hey N—-” to greet a good friend at the bus stop. It’s not the word itself that is wrong; any word is just a combination of letters. (Even the banned F word has a meaning that is not obscene.) What’s wrong is how a word is used. The N word has been wrong, just as any pejorative, for as long as some people have used it to hurt and hold other people down.

  11. Loved your title and explanation – especially the part about people arguing over what they understand. That explains GOP frothing over the ‘spat in the hat’.

  12. If you were a loyal Republican and had watched party leadership choose the Trump brand to represent them what would you do? The only possible advertising strategy given those facts would be to portray Democrats as even worse than the brand that you chose.

    Cuomo had, like Obama at the Press Conference, made Trump a fool back when the Governor had to deal with the pandemic single-handedly while Trump was denying even the existence of it. While the Governor is not without some faults I believe it’s the GOP struggling to live down to the implications of their choice of brands that explain Cuomo’s current troubles and will explain lots of upcoming politics.

    Blame is the only game Republicans have now.

  13. “The desire of America’s culture warriors to ‘own the libs’ doesn’t trump that reality.” Sheila did you have to go and use that pre-noon-on-January 20th “t-word” in an otherwise sterling lesson on the First Amendment? (It’s why I am reluctant to take up euchre again after the pandemic eases…….someone will say “what’s t—-” and the response is still not likely be limited to “Spades, Clubs, Diamonds, or Hearts. Use your imagination as to the possible expletives.)

  14. From an article in the Guardian by Akin Olla:

    “As is usual with outrage over cancel culture, the discussion is devoid of facts, and aimed at a phantom left wing mob that mainly exists in conservatives’ minds. Dr Seuss and Mr Potato Head are not being cancelled, they were never going to be, and, if anything, the exact opposite is happening. Real cancel culture has existed throughout the history of the United States, and much of what we are witnessing today is meaningless and inconsequential by comparison.”

    “What we perceive as “cancel culture” is just a fundamental function of capitalism playing itself out. Companies must adapt with the times to make money on a perpetual track of constant and infinite profit.”

    My side bar:
    Companies that break the law, constantly “Rebrand”. You can also look to our “History Books” in the past that ignored or white-washed our history. Statues and monuments of Confederate traitors were erected all across the South. We even have United States Army bases named after Confederate Traitors.

    Pardon the pun but Potato Head and Dr, Seuss are small potatoes compared to our real history of ignoring, white-washing and air brushing out people and individuals.

  15. Like Confederate statues, these books represent wonderful teachable moments about critical thinking, visual literacy, etc. when framed. Cancelling them cancels the opportunity for showing racism in real terms instead of abstraction. Again, we live in a world or black or white ONLY.

  16. Peggy and Monotonous are on the right track with “property rights” and “rebrand”.

    We are talking about CAPITALISM, people. “Brand” is important – image = brand = sales = MONEY = Capitalism. A company (especially the estate/family of the author) wants a warm, fuzzy legacy if they are humanists and a warm, fuzzy brand, if they are capitalists. Either way, as Sheila points out, it is their decision; they are the owners (property rights/capitalism).

    Real censorship died with the Maryland movie censorship board (the last of its kind). Its powers were restricted at the end, but it did a lot of real censoring. I always wondered what it would be like to sit around and watch porn all day and mutter how terrible it was (they actually had censored a lot more then sex).

    I sometimes laugh at the “alternate dialogue” found in some movies that are played on TV. It isn’t “censorship”, but it is stupid. Still, the movie studio made that decision.

    As many have pointed out, with no real policies to propose, and no valid objections to Democratic proposals, they have to distract with something. Poor QOTP, they are bankrupted in both morals and legislative agendas.

  17. Speaking as one who has actually read all of the Dr Seuss books. There is nothing what so ever racist about any of the books. I think why everyone is so upset is because of the reason given for pulling the books in the first place. If the the owners of the Dr Seuss books wanted to pull certain titles of the books the should have done so quietly. While the owners of the Dr Seuss have exercised their right to pull six of the titles. It follows the next step in that would be that the books would be pulled from books shelve and burned. That would be censorship would it not? I will note that the books will continue to be at some libraries. Looks like none of the books stores selling them are willing to take them off the shelves. This is good news.

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