Censorship is the denial of access to certain information because some person, institution, or government objects to it. It is the act of removing words, passages, or images from published materials because they are considered offensive or otherwise objectionable. In many places, this process is used to protect the public, including children, from pictures or ideas, usually sexual in nature and deemed immoral or offensive. This type of censorship is often considered to be in the best interest of society. In other places, censorship is used to limit access to information and political expression and is considered repressive by free cultures. The American nongovernmental organization Freedom House reported in 2017 that only 31 percent of the world’s countries had a free press. The news media in the remaining 69 percent of nations were restricted by their governments in some way.
Forms of Censorship
Censorship, while it always involves restricting or removing access to certain ideas or materials, includes several approaches. Political censorship is leadership control of news, information, and other forms of communication, including art. While some government regulations are meant to protect citizens, others are meant to enforce approved beliefs and behavior. Religious or educational censorship bans, or attempts to ban, access to materials deemed inappropriate by administrators or members of the community. Self-censorship, in which people limit their own expressions, is a decision by an individual to withhold information for a particular reason.
Throughout history, the suppression of critics and the burning of books has accompanied the desire for power and the defense of orthodoxy. In 399 bc, Socrates (c. 470–399 bc), a Greek philosopher, was executed for teaching his unconventional views to his students. Various European kings protected society’s morals—and their own power—by controlling what was published.
Even in the twenty-first century, political leaders in authoritarian governments prevent access to information through censorship. Strict and unforgiving, such regimes not only control but also define truth, and harsh punishments await those who publicly disagree. For example, North Korea, Syria, and Iran have for decades topped lists of the world’s most repressive countries. These and other authoritarian nations ban foreign news media and tightly control their own journalists. In North Korea, the source of almost all national news is the government’s Korean Central News Agency. Bloggers or independent journalists who post material on the Internet risk imprisonment, or worse, if they are caught.
Although the US Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and freedom of the press, restrictions have been placed on those rights at times. For example, during World War II (1939–1945), the government established the Office of Censorship, and an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) gave its director complete authority over international communications. The office had the power to censor not only news reports that might affect the war effort but also international correspondence, including personal letters.
In 2017, Freedom House, an American nongovernmental independent agency, reported that only 31 percent of the world’s countries had free presses. The United States was continually upheld as a model of press freedom, as were Northern European countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Freedom House estimated that the countries with the least amount of press freedom in 2017 included North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Eritrea. These countries heavily censored or otherwise restricted their news agencies.
Religious and Moral Censorship
The Catholic Church maintained a list of banned books from 1559 until 1966. In the United States, law does not support religious censorship. America’s strong religious communities maintain some influence, but material cannot be kept from the public on religious grounds.
Censorship may also be based on moral grounds. Many laws have been passed to protect citizens, particularly children, from offensive material, notably sexual content. One difficulty in upholding such laws is the subjective nature of material, especially in the arts. Even US Supreme Court justices have been unable to establish an objective definition of obscenity, beyond comments by twentieth-century justice Potter Stewart (1915–1985), who said he knew offensive material when he saw it.
Unlike individual choices of what to read or watch in the privacy of one’s own home, the education of children depends upon choices made by states, school districts, and school administrations. In addition to teaching facts and skills, public education materials necessarily include some values. Beginning in the 1980s, a movement among conservative Christians sought to remove references to evolution, sexuality, and other topics it found objectionable from public school curriculums.
In education, books are more likely than curricula to be the objects of censorship. Each year, parents and administrators call for the removal of books they find offensive or inappropriate for the students’ education, generally citing sexually explicit material or offensive language. The American Library Association (ALA) tracks efforts to remove books and vigorously defends their value. It states in its Library Bill of Rights that only parents have the right to restrict access to library books and only for their own children.
Many writers and journalists self-censor, removing material from their writing before submitting it for publication. In some cases, the choice to refrain from criticizing leaders or policies is influenced by community standards or personal restraint. In other cases, self-censorship is motivated by fear—not only in countries run by repressive governments. Journalists in Mexico, for example, avoid writing stories critical of the drug cartels, which are known for killing those who oppose them.