I want to help folks out in this conversation by drawing a distinction between a couple of different concepts.
As citizen-consumers of the arts, you’re most often called upon (usually in the context of K12 schooling, but not always) to respond to the imposition of censorship. By censorship, what is most commonly meant are actions by an external authority that limit speech or representation. So — a school board wishes to withdraw a book from a classroom, a board of directors removes a painting from a public museum, a university President objects to a student art project, etc. We’re talking about official authorities making judgments (as official authorities do) about the appropriateness of a particular speech act or artistic representation, and, in doing so, usually calling upon some imagined or deliberated community standard of decency.
The larger question of limits on speech is probably best taken up in the context of a class on political theory — the usual positions either tend towards the libertarian (any limit on speech or representation diminishes democratic possibility and individual liberty) or the conservative (orderly, civilized society requires shared standards of appropriateness).
For our class, the key issue is “Is Art or Literature a special category of speech or representation?” Does Art require a greater degree of tolerance? Do artists, by nature of their sense of vocation, get a kind of free pass? What are the consequences of limiting artistic expression? Are limits on artistic expression (or lack thereof) a measure of the health of a democracy? What responsibilities do artists have to the sensitivities of communities that do not share their values?
Many of you in your responses ask a related set of questions about what I would call “self-restraint.” You ask, “Do artists have a responsibility — say in a culture where pornography is ubiquitous and violence against women problematic — to not represent women in ways that seem to make them into wholly sexual beings?” Good questions, and, as the father of a daughter, something I think about a lot. Keep asking it, but see if you can juggle and separate a bit the question of the imposition of standards by an external authority, and the question of the individual responsibility of the artist or writer.
For those of you with an ongoing interest in these issues, you might want to check out the Index on Censorship which is the most significant publication tracking the limiting of speech or representation by official entities around the world.