Sep 242011

In tomorrow’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, I’ll answer the following question on public nudity and sex:

Do restrictions on nudity and sex visible to others violate rights? While having a zestful online debate, someone claimed that Ayn Rand contradicts herself in claiming that public nudity should be censored. (See “Thought Control” in The Ayn Rand Letter.) Since sex is a beautiful act, why should people be protected from it? Could a ban on visible pornography or sex be a slippery slope to other intrusions by government?

Of course, I have my own views on the substantive questions about the proper limits of the law, and I’ll offer them in the webcast tomorrow.

I’m also interested in the question about Ayn Rand’s views on the topic. Hence, I just re-read her essays, “Censorship: Local and Express” and “Thought Control.” Both essays were originally published in The Ayn Rand Letter, and the former is also reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It. I strongly recommend reading (or re-reading) both essays in full before commenting on my question of interpretation below.

In light of Ayn Rand’s strongly principled defense of freedom of speech in those essays, including her rejection of “community standards,” I’m rather puzzled by what she says in these controversial paragraphs from “Thought Control.” (I added an extra paragraph break for readability.)

Only one aspect of sex is a legitimate field for legislation: the protection of minors and of unconsenting adults. Apart from criminal actions (such as rape), this aspect includes the need to protect people from being confronted with sights they regard as loathsome. (A corollary of the freedom to see and hear, is the freedom not to look or listen.) Legal restraints on certain types of public displays, such as posters or window displays, are proper—but this is an issue of procedure, of etiquette, not of morality.

No one has the rights to do whatever he pleases on a public street (nor would he have such a right on a privately-owned street). The police power to maintain order among pedestrians or to control traffic is a procedural, not a substantive, power. A traffic policeman enforces rules of how to drive (in order to avoid clashes or collisions), but cannot tell you where to go.

Similarly, the rights of those who seek pornography would not be infringed by rules protecting the rights of those who find pornography offensive — e.g., sexually explicit posters may properly be forbidden in public places; warning signs, such as “For Adults Only,” may properly be required of private places which are open to the public. This protects the unconsenting, and has nothing to do with censorship, i.e., with prohibiting thought or speech.

I understand Rand’s basic claim just fine. It’s her reasoning that puzzles me. She seems to endorse the general principle that the government can and ought to regulate the actions of private property owners, if that property is open to the public, so as to prevent certain people from being offended. That seems like a terribly dangerous precedent to me, particularly because its application would depend on something like “community standards.”

Hence, I’m wondering if I’ve properly understood Rand’s argument. Any thoughts on that question of interpretation would be most welcome in the comments. What do you think she’s saying — and why?

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