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LAST Wednesday, a Kinko's employee refused to make copies of a flier for the Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religion and Morality (AALARM), saying he resented the organization's position against homosexuality.
Is this censorship? Or is it a moral stand every individual should be able to make?
Before we can approach these difficult questions, it is important to understand the basics of censorship--the forceful suppression of ideas based on their content.
Recently I returned home to find magazine pages at my feet, ripped into angry shreds. They were originally photographs of women's faces that I had pulled out of a magazine to dress an otherwise bare corridor wall.
After a little inquiry, I discovered that the pictures had been torn down by my roommate's girlfriend. She found them offensive for her own reasons. I confronted her; she apologized for not asking me first, but did not regret doing it.
In my mind, she was wrong. One has the right to express ideas and opinions even if they are offensive the overwhelming majority. This right was confirmed by the Supreme Court in its Skokie decision, which allowed Nazis to march in the streets of a predominantly Jewish suburb.
And here at Harvard in 1980, Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz successfully defended the Quincy House Film Society's right to show Deep Throat, the pornographic film starring Linda Lovelace. Two women residents of the house had protested the subjugatory role of women in the film, and called on the local district attorney to secure an injunction against the screening.
THE Kinko's incident is more complex, because it is not just an issue of printing an idea, but whether someone must help print an idea he finds objectionable. In photocopying, an organization's right to disseminate its opinions conflicts with an individual employee's right to not participate in that dissemination. The individual's principled refusal to assist, in turn, hinders the organization's expression of its ideas.
Thomas B. Watson '91 of Defeat Homophobia, in a letter to The Crimson defends the employee's action: "Individuals...must not oppose the rights of others to freedom of speech, but they need not participate in that speech."
He continues, "We encourage Kinko's to continue in its support of its employees' decisions of conscience."
In this context, however, the Kinko's employee should not be considered an individual: He is, for all practical purposes, a robot of the organization.
He copies, collates and manipulates the cash register, all functions that will soon be performed wholly by machines (were it financially feasible, Kinko's would replace him with one). The employee was not hired to judge what does or does not deserve his attention; it is surely not his place to make so-called "decisions of conscience." Frankly, I do not want him filtering what I see.
In subjecting material to his own standards, the employee practiced self-aggrandizement, stepping far outside the realm of his command.
THIS is a coldly logical perspective. Were I that employee I, too, would feel the urge to snub AALARM in any way possible. But if Kinko's employees deny AALARM their service, and Gnomon and Harvard University Copy do the same, then AALARM's freedom to disseminate information will be inhibited.
It is true that AALARM was permitted to use the slower, featureless and poorer quality self-service copiers. But today, denying access to the best technology is tantamount to censorship. Why not, for that matter, deny an organization the use of a phone service, claiming that it is still free to go door-to-door?
When I walk into a copy shop, I do not want to know that there is a possibility that an employee may refuse to make copies for me. It is a service that I expect.
In opening a storefront, Kinko's makes an informal contract with the community to produce facsimiles for its customers, regardless of content (save copyright and First Amendment restrictions). Thus, the situation becomes as clear-cut as Skokie or Deep Throat:
If an employee of Kinko's chooses to refuse service to a customer, then he may certainly do so: once. In this way, the employee is allowed the freedom to abide by his personal moral code and not assist in the dissemination of ideas which he finds repulsive. Yet because he is not fulfilling his duties either to Kinko's or to the community, he should not merely have been reprimanded, as Kinko's chose to do.
He should be fired.
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