Censorship is the denial of access to certain information because some person, institution, or government objects to it and removes words, passages, or images from published materials. 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, and is often considered to be in the best interest of society. In other places, however, 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, and the news media in the remaining 69 percent of nations were restricted by their governments in some way.
Forms of Censorship
While it always involves restricting or removing access to certain ideas or materials, censorship includes several approaches including political and religious. With political censorship, government leaders control 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 have accompanied the quest for power and the defense of orthodoxy. In 399 BC, Socrates (c. 470–399 BC), a Greek philosopher, was executed for conveying his unconventional views to his students while European kings sometimes controlled what materials were published in an effort to protect both the morals of society and their own personal power.
Even in the twenty-first century, the public’s access to information may be restricted by political leaders in repressive, authoritarian governments, who may even falsify or distort the news that citizens receive. Strict and unforgiving regimes, such as those in North Korea, Syria, and Iran, not only control but also define truth, and harsh punishments await those who publically disagree. In the North Korea, a Communist country, the source of almost all national news is the government’s Korean Central News Agency, which portrays the views of the government both domestically and internationally. Posting dissenting material on the Internet in such a regime could result in imprisonment or death.
Although the US Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and freedom of the press, restrictions have been placed on those rights at times, such as during World War II (1939–1945) when 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, countries that heavily censored or otherwise restricted their news agencies.
Religious and Moral Censorship
A type of religious censorship, the Catholic Church compiled a list of banned books from 1559 to 1966, but in the United States, the law does not uphold religious censorship. While strong religious communities exist in the country and exert their influence, materials cannot be censored strictly on religious grounds.
Passing laws to protect citizens, particularly children, from offensive materials, notably sexual content, is an example or moral censorship. One difficulty in upholding such laws is the subjective nature of material, and 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 who feel that in addition to teaching facts and skills, public education materials must 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, and 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, stating that in its Library Bill of Rights 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, but in other cases, self-censorship is motivated by fear, and not only in countries run by repressive governments. Journalists in Mexico, for example, avoid writing articles criticizing the drug cartels, which are known for killing those who oppose them.