Censorship is the supervision and control of the information and ideas that are circulated among the people within a society.
In modern times, censorship refers to the examination of books, periodicals, plays, films, television and radio programs, news reports, and other
communication media for the purpose of altering or suppressing parts thought to be objectionable or offensive. The objectionable material may be
considered immoral or obscene, heretical or blasphemous, seditious or treasonable, or injurious to the national security. Thus, the rationale for
censorship is that it is necessary for the protection of three basic social institutions: the family, the church, and the state.
Until recently, censorship was firmly established in various institutional forms in even the most advanced democratic societies. By the mid-20th
century a revolutionary change in social attitudes and societal controls weakened the existence and strength of censorship in many democracies;
however, all forms of censorship have not been universally eliminated. Today many persons, including some civil libertarians, object to the “new
permissiveness” in the arts and mass media; they claim it debases the public taste, corrupts all sense of decency and civility, and even undermines
The reasons for censorship vary depending on the type of information being censored.
- Political Censorship
Occurs when governments hold back information from their citizens
The logic is to exert control over the populace and prevent free expression that might form a rebellion
- Military Censorship
Process of keeping military intelligence and tactics confidential and away from the enemy
Used to counter espionage
Militaries will attempt to suppress politically inconvenient information even if that information has no actual intelligence value
- Religious Censorship
Means by which any material objectionable to a certain faith is removed
Involves a dominant religion forcing limitations on less prevalent ones
One religion may shun the works of another if they believe the content is not appropriate for their faith
- Moral Censorship
Removal of materials that are obscene or otherwise morally questionable
- Corporate Censorship
Process by which editors in corporate media outlets intervene to halt the publishing of information that portrays their business or business partners
in a negative light
Censorship and the ideology supporting it go back to ancient times. Every society has had customs, taboos, or laws by which speech, play, dress,
religious observance, and sexual expression were regulated.
Ancient Greek Censorship
In Athens, where democracy first flourished, Socrates preferred to sacrifice his life rather than accept censorship of his teachings; he defended free
discussion as a supreme public service. He was the first person to formulate a philosophy of intellectual freedom.
His disciple, Plato, was the first philosopher to formulate a rationale for intellectual, religious, and artistic censorship. He believed art should
be subservient to morality. He proposed that wrong beliefs about God or the hereafter be treated as crimes and that formal machinery be set up to
Instances of repression and persecution in Athens were not truly typical of Greek democracy; the freedom to speak openly in private or in the assembly
was generally respected.
In Rome, the general attitude was that only persons in authority, particularly members of the Senate, enjoyed the privilege of speaking freely. Public
prosecution and punishment occurred frequently.
There was a policy of toleration toward the many religions and cults of the diverse nations and races the Roman Empire ruled. The only demand made was
that Roman citizens, as a political act, worship the imperial person or image; beyond that, all citizens were free to worship their own gods and
observe their own rites and rituals.
Jews and early Christians refused to obey and were persecuted regularly.
In AD 313, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great decreed toleration of Christianity. Twenty years later, Constantine the Great set the pattern of
religious censorship that was to be followed for centuries by ordering the burning of all books by the Greek theologian Arius.
Roman Catholic Censorship
After the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the established religion of the empire, the Roman government and the church began to persecute both
pagans and Christian heretics who deviated from orthodox doctrine or practice. The pope was recognized as the final authority in church doctrine and
government, and the secular state used force to compel obedience to his decisions.
Books or sermons that were opposed to orthodox faith were prohibited, their authors punished. The first catalog of forbidden books was issued by Pope
Gelasius in 496. Individual heretical books were subsequently forbidden by special papal edicts.
Censorship in this period was concerned primarily with suppressing heresy. For the purpose of punishing all such manifestations, Pope Gregory IX
instituted the Inquisition in 1231. For almost 500 years the Inquisition remained an influential agency of religious censorship.
The invention of printing in the 15th century made prepublication censorship possible. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII introduced such censorship.
Printers were required to submit all manuscripts to church authorities, and a work could be printed only after it had been approved. Pope Paul III in
1542 established the Universal Roman Inquisition, or Congregation of the Holy Office, one of whose duties was to examine and condemn heretical or
immoral works. In 1559, Pope Paul IV first issued the Index of Forbidden Books, which was supplemented by his successors. Approximately 5,000 books
were ultimately listed in the Index, and the last edition was issued in 1948. Pope Paul VI in 1965 made substantial reforms, changed the name of the
Holy Office to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and abolished the position of censor. It was announced that the Index would not be
renewed, that the penalty of excommunication would no longer have the force of law, but that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would
occasionally publish lists of books that were not recommended for reading by Roman Catholics.
The Protestant Reformation did not itself erect a change in the practice of censorship. Its leaders—among them John Calvin, John Knox, and Martin
Luther—claimed liberty of conscience and toleration only for themselves and their followers. When in power, they too attempted to suppress all
deviation from their own brands of orthodoxy; they persecuted Protestant heretics and Roman Catholics.
In England King Henry VIII supplanted the pope as head of the Church of England. The Act of Supremacy (1534) vested in the king power to declare and
punish heresies. He persecuted both papists and reformers, and he burned copies of the English translation of the New Testament.
Henry VIII established a licensing system that resembled the prepublication censorship of Pope Innocent VIII. It required printers to submit all
manuscripts to church authorities for their approval prior to publication. This licensing system continued in England until 1695. The English poet
John Milton protested against such censorship in his classic essay Areopagitica (1644). Many English people associated licensing by church censors
with ecclesiastical supervision, the Inquisition, and restraints on religion, education, and intellectual pursuits.
The 18th century marks the beginning of the modern period. This period emphasized toleration and liberty. The new spirit of liberty was first felt in
the area of religious belief and rapidly spread to political life, science, and literature.
In modern democratic countries, a person's religious beliefs and forms of worship are matters of strictly private conscience. The government cannot
intrude, cannot stipulate any religious requirements for any public office or benefit, and the state and religion are independent of each other.
These principles have established peaceful relations between the government and religious systems in truly democratic societies.
In Communist countries, things were different. Religion was not recognized and atheism was the established ideology.
Another exception is the kind of theocracy established in Iran in 1979 with the institution of an Islamic republic.
Except for a brief period in France after the Revolution of 1789, political censorship continued to flourish in continental Europe until the rise of
republican governments in the mid-19th century. In the 1930s a new wave of political censorship swept Europe, especially in the totalitarian regimes
of Germany, Italy, and Spain. Since the end of World War II, however, political censorship has diminished in Western nations.
State censorship remained severe in the Soviet Union and other countries where political opposition is suppressed by permitting the existence of only
one party. One-party nations determine directly the ideas and information to be published, circulated, and taught. When publishers, authors, or
broadcasters are adjudged to have trespassed the political or moral boundaries set by law or administrative edict, they may be arbitrarily punished by
fines, imprisonment, confiscation of their publication, prohibition of future publications, or closing of the medium of communication.
Rating countries on a scale ranging from 1 (most free) to 15 (least free), a survey published by Freedom House in the late 1980s disclosed that 60
countries comprising about 2 billion people enjoyed the highest degrees of freedom (1-5). In these countries—which were concentrated in North
America and Western Europe but which also included Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—individuals generally had the right to bring about peaceful
changes in government, enjoyed freedom of speech and press, and had free access to other mass communications. Another 39 countries with about 1
billion people received rankings of between 6 and 10, while 68 countries with 2.1 billion people had forms of government that denied citizens most
political and civil rights.
Much attention was focused on censorship in the USSR and other Communist countries. Exiles from the former Soviet Union have disclosed the severe
persecution to which they were subjected. Among such exiles were literary personalities and scientists, such as Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, who was
awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, and Andrey D. Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Their world recognition and acclaim did
not prevent the Soviet government from attempting to suppress their work and persecute them.
By the late 1980s, however, the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev had relaxed government censorship of the media as part of a more
general reform movement, and other Eastern-bloc countries were also affected. The increase in freedom soon led to the overthrow of the Soviet Union
and several other Communist governments by long-suppressed dissident forces.
Censorship in the United States
When the American colonists drafted laws before 1776, they borrowed from English precedents regarding personal rights and liberties but went far
beyond Great Britain in the fields of freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. After the American Revolution and the adoption of the U.S.
Constitution, these freedoms were guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The 1st Amendment, in broad terms, forbids Congress from enacting laws that would regulate speech or press before publication or punish after
publication. At various times many states passed laws in contradiction to the freedoms guaranteed in the 1st Amendment. For example, in the
pre-American Civil War period abolitionist literature against slavery was outlawed in the South. In the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the
guarantee of liberty in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment (adopted in 1868) makes the 1st Amendment applicable also to the states. The
Supreme Court has held that although all previous restraint on publication is unconstitutional, exceptional circumstances may justify such
restraint—in wartime, for instance, publication of the number, location, or sailing dates of troops may be prohibited.
Less dramatic expressions of a spirit of censorship have tended to persist. In some state or local communities textbook commissions or school boards
have exerted pressure on authors and publishers to omit from or include in school texts certain materials relating to various sensitive areas such as
evolution, the biblical account of creation, discussions of religious or racial groups, and expressions that are allegedly sexist. Some groups have
attempted to pressure public and school libraries to prevent circulation of books and periodicals they consider morally or otherwise offensive. In the
past, serious censorship problems were presented by the operations of the U.S. Post Office and the Customs Bureau, which refused to allow certain
books and other materials to be brought into the country or sent through the mails. Since the early 1970s, however, court decisions, congressional
legislation, and administrative regulations have resolved most of these problems, at least for the present
Until about the mid-20th century, government policies provided for the strict suppression of obscene publications. The test, as developed in Britain
and substantially followed in the U.S., was whether the publication “tended ... to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral
influences.” The law was invoked against works of recognized merit as well as against pornographic publications. Successful prosecutions were
common, as were seizures of books by post office, customs, and police officials.
The beginning of a new legal approach may be traced to the action of the federal courts in the 1930s, when they held that the Irish author James
Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene and could be freely passed through customs. The courts ruled that the use of “dirty words” in “a sincere and
honest book” did not make the book “dirty.” Since the 1950s many obscenity cases—involving books, magazines, and films—have been brought
before the Supreme Court. In the cases during the 1970s the Court ruled that laws against obscenity must be limited “to works which, taken as a
whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex; which portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and which, taken as a whole, do not have
serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The Court has further held that obscenity should be determined by applying
“contemporary community standards” rather than national standards.
One U.S. industry, the film industry, has for many years practiced a form of self-censorship. In the 1920s, responding to public demands for strong
controls, the Motion Picture Association of America imposed on its constituents a Production Act; compliance with its standards gave a movie a seal of
approval. A system of film classification was begun in 1968 and has been revised several times since then. Films are given ratings, as follows: G
(general audiences), PG (parental guidance advised), PG-13 (may not be suitable for preteens), R (persons under age 17 not admitted unless accompanied
by parent or adult guardian), and NC-17 (persons under age 17 not admitted; replaced the X rating in 1990).
For the television and radio industries the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has generally promulgated vague rules about program content
containing an implied threat that a license can be revoked for repeated poor judgment involving program content. In 1987, however, the FCC responded
to public complaints by adopting measures to restrict the use of explicit language about sex and bodily functions from the broadcasting media. Another
code, designed by the National Association of Broadcasters, is voluntarily adhered to by station operators. The major networks also have their own
self-regulating system. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), for example, has a staff of people who review scripts and watch everything that is
aired on CBS-TV, including commercials; every contract with a producer provides that the project is subject to approval under this system.
In the U.S., many different private groups attempt to influence government agencies, businesses, libraries, radio and television broadcasters,
newspapers, and other communications media to suppress material that they consider objectionable. Religious, ethnic, and racial groups have tried to
prevent plays, movies, and television programs from being presented because of elements they deem offensive.
One private group, the American Civil Liberties Union, promotes the open flow of all types of information in the belief that individuals should have
free access and opportunities for the exercise of their personal discretion and that no group should limit the availability of the resources from
which such choices are made.
National Coalition Against Censorship
Definitions of Censorship
What is Censorship?
Relevant discussion threads on AboveTopSecret.com
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Microsoft Patents Censorship Bot
Congress to Revive Hate Crime Bill to Censor Christians