Censorship occurs when the government, a private institution, or an individual regulates or suppresses writing, speech, or any other media for moral, political, or security purposes. Some people may support some forms of content restrictions, such as imposing age limits on media that may be inappropriate for children, while opposing other forms, such as the suppression of a politically unpopular opinion. Opponents of censorship argue that freedom of expression is essential for a well-functioning democracy. The Founding Fathers of the United States promoted this idea in the First Amendment to the Constitution, promising that no law would infringe upon the freedoms of speech and the press. Despite this early commitment to freedom of expression, the US government has made some exceptions.
Changes in community standards, shifts in political power, and national crises can contribute to greater or lesser protections against censorship. During wartime, for example, the government frequently calls for the suppression of certain practical information, such as troop locations, which is generally accepted by the public. The public is less supportive, however, of censorship of opposition to the war and other dissent that is not directly related to public safety or national security. Alternately, material that may have been considered obscene in previous decades or centuries may be deemed more acceptable by contemporary viewers. In addition, advances in media technology have created new opportunities to test the limits of freedom of expression. The framers of the Constitution composed the First Amendment more than a century before the introduction of radio and the subsequent emergence of television and the Internet. Information shared over these mediums can reach much larger audiences, raising concern over the accessibility of information of certain material to children as well as concern over how powerful a single individual or organization, such as a news media organization or Internet search engine, can become in determining how information is received.
Freedom House, an independent watchdog, regularly ranks the United States among the countries where the press enjoys the highest levels of freedom. In 2017, however, the group noted several threats to journalistic freedom in the United States, including the government’s calls on journalists to identify anonymous sources, the targeting of journalists at protests, and denigration and harassment of journalists by President Donald Trump and his supporters. Outside of the United States, censorship is widely practiced, especially in countries under authoritarian governments such as North Korea and Turkmenistan. Many around the world look to the United States as a bastion of freedom. In a 2015 survey of people around the world, Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of respondents from all nations surveyed believed that the US government “respects the personal freedoms of its people.” The same study, however, noted that such an opinion about the United States is in decline among both Europeans and US citizens.
Protected and Unprotected Speech
Not all forms of speech are entitled to equal protection under US law. Authorities must provide a compelling reason to limit or censor someone’s speech. Political speech in particular cannot be regulated unless it is likely to spur people to lawlessness. However, government agencies can limit the publication of or access to material that could compromise national security.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that First Amendment protections did not apply to speech used for commercial purposes after a business owner tried to skirt a local ban on printing flyers in order to promote his submarine tour business. An advertisement for the business appeared on one side of the flyer, and the other side featured a political complaint. The man assumed that the appearance of political speech would warrant protection under the First Amendment. Chief Justice Owen Roberts, however, identified this tactic as “evasion.” This censorship of commercial speech continued until 1976 when the Supreme Court overturned a Virginia law prohibiting the advertisement of prescription medicine prices, asserting that limiting commercial speech would prevent consumers from accessing information. Although commercial speech now enjoys greater protection, advertising must adhere to certain regulations that prohibit deceptive messages and advertisers must support their claims with evidence. In the interest of public health and safety, specific restrictions have been imposed on advertising related to alcohol, tobacco, medicine, and products marketed to children.
Political speech can take many forms. School dress codes, for example, were successfully challenged on the grounds of protecting political speech in 1969 when the Supreme Court determined that dress codes forbidding protest armbands violated the students’ freedom of expression. The meaning of political speech came into question in 2008 when the group Citizens United challenged restrictions on the corporate financing of political media. In this case, Citizens United wanted to broadcast a politically charged and corporately funded film on cable television, which many, including the US District Court for the District of Columbia, believed violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 2010 that a limit placed on corporate funding of such media amounts to a limit imposed on political speech. The decision has had implications for the democratic process, as it allows corporations and unions to exert political influence through unlimited financial contributions. Critics of the decision contend that political spending cannot be equated with political speech.
The limiting of religious speech is a contentious issue in the United States, as the First Amendment aims to protect the freedom of expression while favoring no specific religion. The law extends protection over religious expression in most instances except where doing so would amount to the endorsement of a specific religion, such as a teacher hosting a denominational prayer in a public classroom. Censorship of religious expression has also included the removal of religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments from government property. Proponents of removing such symbols invoke the separation of church and state, while some opponents invoke the First Amendment and others argue that US law is rooted in Judeo-Christian principles. During the winter holiday season, many businesses and media companies choose to avoid religiously specific messages to be more inclusive of potential customers of all faiths, a form of self-censorship that certain Christian groups have criticized as a “War on Christmas.” Alternately, the Jehovah’s Witnesses invoked the First Amendment to secure their right not to speak before the Supreme Court in 1943 when they protested a law requiring students to pledge allegiance to the flag in violation of their religious beliefs.
Some groups have called for the censorship of hate speech, which demeans someone’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Speech codes or policies to regulate hate speech at colleges and universities have repeatedly been struck down in court as unconstitutional. Some people feel hate speech should be treated as “fighting words”—words meant to provoke an act of violence—a form of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment. Others argue that the “fighting words” exception is untenably vague and cannot be applied to all hate speech. Opponents of such censorship contend that allowing the government to determine what is and what is not hate speech will lead to tyranny. Many critics believe the “fighting words” exception should be limited to an insult directed to a specific individual for the purposes of inciting violence and should not be applied broadly to speech that some may find offensive.
Regulating Print and Broadcast Media
Congress and state governments have the right to censor material that has been deemed obscene. Material can be considered obscene if it meets the criteria of the Miller test, named for Marvin Miller who owned a mail order pornography business that became the subject of a 1975 Supreme Court case. According to the Miller test, material is classified as obscene if it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” State law and local community standards are used to determine whether a work is obscene, accounting for the ambiguities of the Miller test. Some consensus exists over what material is obscene. Child pornography, for example, is prohibited by federal law throughout the United States. Although the US government has been reluctant to regulate print media, such as newspapers, magazines, and books, it has been more willing to place restrictions on broadcast media. A primary reason for this is that the paper and presses used by print media are privately owned, but radio and television airwaves are overseen by the federal government and publicly owned. In addition, there is a limited number of broadcast frequencies that can be allocated. Because broadcasting over airwaves is a privilege, the airwaves are subject to quality control measures to prevent them from being used inappropriately.
One way the government exerts control over the airwaves is through licensing. Radio and television broadcasters must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and must renew their licenses periodically. The government also requires that broadcasters serve the public interest. This includes airing local news programs and public service announcements, as well as providing equal air time for political speech, not just the viewpoints in line with the broadcaster’s opinions. The FCC can also restrict, in the public interest, programs that it deems indecent, which the FCC defines using the same Miller test the Supreme Court uses to determine if something is obscene.
Several federal laws have been enacted in an attempt to regulate content online. In addition to laws prohibiting the distribution of child pornography and copyrighted material, the government has attempted to police online content under the auspices of protecting the public interest. These laws, including the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, have been struck down in whole or in part because the scope of the laws made them unconstitutional and largely unenforceable.
One of the key provisions of the CDA that remains in effect is that Internet service providers, social media platforms, and other online services are not legally responsible when someone uses their service to post objectionable content. This provision protects companies like Google and Facebook from legal recourse when their service is used to upload offensive material. Many online services, however, have chosen to institute their own content standards and community guidelines. This practice of self-censorship has led to accusations that these companies do not support free expression and are attempting to exert control over free flow of information. Alternately, proponents of this practice have argued that online services are too permissive with the content they allow. Anti-cyberbullying groups have pushed for greater restrictions and consequences for online harassment, while free speech advocates have argued that such measures amount to censorship.
International companies must adhere to the laws of the country in which they operate. In some countries like China, Iran, and Tajikistan, certain Google services like YouTube and Google Search and foreign social media companies like Facebook are not available. In other countries, companies must decide whether or not they will accept the requests of local governments to remove content. Both Facebook and Google post regularly updated reports of the requests they receive from governments, including the United States, as well as how the companies respond to those requests. Such voluntary censorship by large online service companies occurs in nearly every country in which they operate. Proponents of this practice argue that adhering to such requests is not necessarily censorship, because the government is not forcing the company nor the user to restrict their content. Others contend that these companies have the freedom to restrict this content if doing so helps the companies become more profitable. Critics argue that this voluntary censorship threatens the Internet’s potential for positive social change.