The Issue of Censorship and Fahrenheit 451
Bradbury ties personal freedom to the right of an individual having the freedom of expression when he utilizes the issue of censorship in Fahrenheit 451. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The common reading of the First Amendment is that commitment to free speech is not the acceptance of only non-controversial expressions that enjoy general approval. To accept a commitment to the First Amendment means, in the words of Justice Holmes, "freedom for what we hate." As quoted in Students' Right to Read (NCTE, 1982), "Censorship leaves students with an inadequate and distorted picture of the ideals, values, and problems of their culture. Writers may often be the spokesmen of their culture, or they may stand to the side, attempting to describe and evaluate that culture. Yet, partly because of censorship or the fear of censorship, many writers are ignored or inadequately represented in the public schools, and many are represented in anthologies not by their best work but by their safest or least offensive work." What are the issues involved in censorship?
Imagine that a group wants to ban Fahrenheit 451 because Montag defies authority. For the sake of the argument, assume for a moment that you wish to "ban" Fahrenheit 451 from the library shelves. To do so, you must do a number of things. First, you must establish why defying authority is wrong. What are its consequences? What are the probable effects on youth to see flagrant disregard of authority? (In regard to these questions, you may want to read Plato's Apology to get a sense of how to argue the position.) Second, you must have some theory of psychology, either implied or directly stated. That is, you must establish how a reading of Fahrenheit 451 would inspire a student to flagrantly disregard authority. Why is reading bad for a student? How can it be bad? Next, you must establish how a student who reads Fahrenheit 451 will read the book and extract from it a message that says "Defy Authority Whenever Possible" and then act on this message.
You must then reconcile whatever argument you construct with the responsibilities that accompany accepting the rights of the First Amendment. Perhaps you should consider and think about the issues of free speech and fundamental rights that you may not have considered before. Indeed, you may conclude that you can't claim your own right to expression if you have the right to suppress others rights to express themselves.
In looking at censorship in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury sends a very direct message showing readers what can happen if they allow the government to take total control of what they do (or do not) read, watch, and discuss. For example, the government in Fahrenheit 451 has taken control and demanded that books be given the harshest measure of censorship — systematic destruction by burning.
Although the books and people have fallen victims to censorship in Fahrenheit 451, luckily, some citizens remain who are willing to sacrifice their lives to ensure that books remain alive. As Faber notes in a conversation with Montag, "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books." Faber then continues this conversation with Montag pointing out that people need "the right to carry out actions based on what we learn [from books]. . . ."
Because the government has censored so much in its society, the citizens in Fahrenheit 451 have no idea about what is truly happening in their world. A direct result of their limited knowledge is that their entire city is destroyed because propaganda wouldn't allow individuals to see that their destruction was imminent.