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Not In Front of the Children:
"Indecency," Censorship, and
the Innocence of Youth

by Marjorie Heins

Winner of the American Library Association’s 2002 Eli M. Oboler Award for the Best Published Work in the Area of Intellectual Freedom


"An indispensable resource for anyone concerned about censorship, obscenity, and harmful to minorscontent in any era."
                                            - Electronic Frontier Foundation

"The best work in the field on the subject."
- Professor Brett Gary, New York University Dept. of Culture & Communication


From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Internet filters to the v-chip, censorship exercised on behalf of children and adolescents is often based on the assumption that they must be protected from "indecent" information that might harm their development—whether in art, in literature, or on a Web site. But where does this assumption come from, and is it true?

In Not in Front of the Children, Marjorie Heins explores the fascinating history of "indecency" laws and other restrictions aimed at protecting youth. From Plato's argument for rigid censorship, through Victorian laws aimed at repressing libidinous thoughts, to contemporary battles over sex education in public schools and violence in the media, Heins guides us through what became, and remains, an ideological minefield. With fascinating examples drawn from around the globe, she suggests that the "harm to minors" argument rests on shaky foundations.

There is an urgent need for informed, dispassionate debate about the perceived conflict between the free-expression rights of young people and the widespread urge to shield them from expression that is considered harmful. Not in Front of the Children will spur this long-needed conversation.


"NOT IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN is an indispensable resource for anyone curious about censorship designed to "protect" young people, and an eloquent argument for more thoughtful dialogue about helping kids grow up without stifling their spirit."

Judy Blume

"Important ... timely ... an impassioned work of scholarship."

Professor Michael Grossberg, Federal Communications Law Journal

"Heins argues potently that the age-old idea of protecting children from "corrupting" influences—which can be traced at least as far back as Plato's Republic—has reached dangerous proportions in the U.S. . . . Heins's historical argument makes an important contribution to the literature of civil liberties and child psychology."

Publishers Weekly

"In recent years the rights of young people have come under siege from the left and the right. Their civil liberties are systematically compromised, eroded and denied in the name of public safety and the so-called "best interests of the child." Heins examines the long history of "protecting" children from "indecency." Her analysis exposes hidden political agendas, ideological underpinnings, and fallacious logic. In challenging our most basic assumptions about children, Heins breaks new ground, facilitating a dialogue that's long overdue. Scholars, educators, civil libertarians, legislators, students, young people and their advocates will find this an invaluable resource."

Dr. Donna Gaines, author of Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids

"Marjorie Heins' jewel of a book tells us where the American obsession with sex has been, where it is now, and where she thinks it will be tomorrow. Wonderfully written, by a fine scholar who has led the battle against censorship, it's a must-read for anyone who wants to understand today's American cultural scene. Heins is one of our most impassioned and informed first amendment activists, and here she gives us a ringside seat at the cultural wars."

Martin Garbus, first amendment attorney and author of Tough Talk

"A timely appeal to our better judgment. Heins traces the history of our illusions about juvenile innocence, as well as our endeavors to preserve that myth through censorship. ... She dissects the effort to restrict material ‘harmful to minors,’ which has become the favorite conservative cause of moderate politicians. ... Indecency, the moral concept disguised by this bogus concept of harmfulness, is itself disparate, subtle, and subjective."

William Saletan, Mother Jones

"Heins is blessedly clear on the legal ramifications of the obscenity prosecutions she considers. ... No one is likely to attempt to write a history of how in 20th century America free speech was denied and narrowed in the name of decency and protecting minors without consulting this book."

Charles Taylor,

"In a clear, scholarly narrative, Heins walks us through the central history of First Amendment law, from the age of Comstock through Ulysses and Lady Chatterley, from George Carlin’s seven forbidden words through today’s continuing struggles over censorship and filtering on the Internet. ... There’s endless interesting material here. I was especially struck by Heins’ exploration of why filtering—commonly thought of, and treated by the courts, as a remedy less drastic than outright censorship—is in some ways more chilling because it is carried out by private companies under unstated standards."

Marjorie Williams,

"From Plato to v-chips and the 1999 ‘Sensation’ fiasco at the Brooklyn Museum, Heins cites historical trials and controversies in the arts, media, and education, to challenge the reader’s conception of childhood and confidence in claims of damage to it. ... [A]n indispensable history of (primarily American) censorship."

M. Yacowar, Choice

"For those of us who have wondered how harmful to minors laws came about, Marjorie Heins’ NOT IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN is a veritable encyclopedia of facts. ... The most valuable aspect of the book may be the author’s ability to place the issues in a broad context, and in layman’s terms. ... Anyone who needs to understand First Amendment law—especially, these days, librarians—will be enlightened, enraged, and ultimately empowered by this book."

Melora Ranney, American Library Ass’n Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom

The second edition, with a new introduction, is available from
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Abe Books, and other online booksellers.

For more on Not in Front of the Children and the debate it has fostered, see Heins's Reply to the Critics

For responses from teens, see Youth Respond to Not in Front of the Children

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

All material on this site is covered by a Creative Commons "Attribution - No Derivs - NonCommercial" license. (See You may copy it in its entirely as long as you credit the Free Expression Policy Project and provide a link to the Project's Web site. You may not edit or revise it, or copy portions, without permission (except, of course, for fair use). Please let us know if you reprint!