“We’ll censor anything, even the dictionary”

According to this story in the Press-Enterprise (Southern California), school officials in the Menifee Union School District have decided to censor a most-unlikely target: the latest Merriam-Webster dictionary. The reason? An allegedly too-precise definition for “oral sex.”

If it’s the same as this definition from merriam-webster.com then I honestly can’t tell what all the uproar is about. Quoted below just so you can see what I’m referring to:

Main Entry: oral sex
Function: noun
Date: 1973

: oral stimulation of the genitals : cunnilingus, fellatio

The reason given is, to me, lamer than a one-legged duck:

“It’s just not age appropriate,” said [district spokesperson Beth] Cadmus, adding that this is the first time a book has been removed from classrooms throughout the district.

Particularly troublesome–and according to the story, parents and members of the school board have a problem with this too–is that it is based on one parent’s complaint.

I concur in principle with Rita Peters, a school board member who is quoted in the story as saying “If we’re going to pull a book because it has something on oral sex, then every book in the library with that better be pulled.” I say “in principle” here because the far more likely outcome is that this silly run of censorship will be stopped dead in its tracks because nobody will want to go through an entire school library looking for mentions of such things.

It’s a slippery slope, and I don’t think there’s a single place where one can draw the line that will make every parent happy. Besides, the kids will learn about “the birds and the bees” at some point anyway. Should that be taught in first grade? Probably not. The age at which it is appropriate is a topic of debate and may not even be the same for every child. What is not appropriate, at any age, is teaching our children that censorship is an acceptable response to objectionable material.

The Ninjawords slice-and-dice

Yet another nice little gaffe on the part of Apple.

John Gruber (daringfireball.net) reports on the recent flap regarding an iPhone app called Ninjawords (note: Gruber’s blog entry does contain profanity). Part of this is a case of unfortunate timing on the part of Matchstick (makers of Ninjawords), who wanted to release an app prior to Apple’s rollout of age ratings.

The other part is where Apple drops the ball. Other apps contain the not-so-nice language reviewers objected to in Ninjawords, yet do not have a 17+ rating. In general, I find it silly to rate an entire dictionary “adults only” for its inclusion of profanities. And apparently Phil Crosby of Matchstick agrees. Quoting from Gruber’s article:

Regarding this discrepancy between the ratings for dictionaries, Crosby said to me, “Apple may slap a 17+ rating on our app and wash their hands, saying ‘you’re not required to censor your app’, but at the same time, they’re putting a great deal of pressure on us to do so. Who wants to be the only illicit dictionary on the App Store? That may work for Urban Dictionary, but not us. I think that applying parental ratings inconsistently is tightly related to censorship in our case, and will be true for other apps as well.”

A certain parallel can be drawn here between the MPAA’s NC-17 rating and Apple’s 17+ rating. The MPAA claims their ratings board does not actually censor. While the letter of this is true, the spirit of an NC-17 is that distribution becomes much narrower and most theatres will not show an NC-17 film at all. So it is de facto censorship in that most producers who actually want to turn a profit wind up cutting or editing movies to get an R rating.

I’m not quite as well versed in the iPhone App Store, but from a cursory browse it appears that the 17+ rating definitely changes the way people look at a given app, and it’s entirely possible company-owned iPhone users may be restricted by company policy from using a 17+ rated app. In the past Apple has treated 17+ apps differently (not allowing promo codes for 17+ apps for a short while) and may yet decide to do so again.

I do find it distasteful that Apple may, on one hand, say “you’re not required to censor your app” but engage in de facto censorship of that app after it’s on sale.