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 support specified 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. James Madison composed the First Amendment more than a century before the introduction of radio broadcasts 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.
In the twenty-first century, concerns over disinformation, harassment, hate speech, and deceptive marketing have motivated calls for greater regulation of online content, often resulting in tech companies and digital media outlets conceding to some form of self-censorship. In a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, 72 percent of respondents believed that it was somewhat or very likely that social media sites purposefully censor content that does not align with the company's political views. Similar concerns on college campuses have led some student groups to protest speakers, professors, and others with whom they disagree. Because these efforts have frequently targeted individuals who promote conservative ideas, such efforts have been criticized as Orwellian censorship campaigns to silence political dissidents under the banners of political correctness and diversity.
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 cannot be regulated unless it is found likely to incite lawlessness. However, government agencies can limit the publication of or access to material that could compromise national security. 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. 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.
Several jurisdictions imposed strict limits on commercial speech before the Supreme Court's ruling in Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc. (1976) overturned a state law prohibiting the advertisement of prescription medicine prices, asserting that limiting commercial speech would prevent consumers from accessing information. Though 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.
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."
The First Amendment also protects individuals from being compelled to speak as determined by the Supreme Court's ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), which involved a family of Jehovah's Witnesses who opposed a law requiring students to pledge allegiance to the flag. Despite the court's ruling, refusals to participate in patriotic activity continue to stir controversy when done as an act of political protest. In 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick attracted attention for kneeling during the national anthem before football games to protest police brutality and systemic discrimination against people of color. Kaepernick's protest drew criticisms from team owners, fans, fellow players, and President Donald Trump, resulting in Kaepernick losing opportunities within the National Football League (NFL). Others, however, drew inspiration from Kaepernick's example and joined his protest. Others who did not personally support his protest still objected to the treatment he received, contending that the athlete had been unduly censored for his political speech. In 2018 the NFL adopted a policy to suspend players who sat or kneeled during the anthem, prompting accusations of censorship as well as a letter condemning the policy by a coalition of civil rights organizations that included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
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. Sexually exploitative material featuring minors, for example, is prohibited by federal law throughout the United States.
Though 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.
While the FCC can impose punishments on radio stations for broadcasting audio content which it has deemed indecent, the commission cannot enforce restrictions on companies distributing such content through means other than public airwaves. Many popular genres of music, including jazz, rock and roll, heavy metal, and hip-hop, aroused concern in the twentieth century as politicians and parents expressed worry over the music's content and potential influence on young people, leading to creation of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985, a committee that sought to restrict access to music containing references to sex, drugs, or violence. The PMRC's activism prompted the US Senate to hold a special hearing on the "Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records." The hearings contributed to the Recording Industry Association of America providing record labels with regulatory guidelines that included adopting the practice of adhering a Parental Advisory Label (PAL) to recordings with potentially offensive content. Rather than impose laws that could ultimately be unconstitutional, the government approved the music industry's efforts to regulate itself. Similar arrangements have allowed the film, comic book, and video game industries to regulate themselves rather than submit to government censorship.
Federal law prohibits the online distribution of copyrighted material, sexually exploitative and abusive materials featuring children, and certain types of violence against animals. Other attempts by the federal government to regulate content online under the auspices of protecting the public interest have met with repeated legal challenges. Courts have struck down several laws, including the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, in whole or in part because the scope of the laws made them unconstitutional or unenforceable. A key provision of the CDA prevents Internet service providers, social media platforms, and other online services from being held legally responsible for objectionable content posted by their users. Intended to protect companies like Google and Facebook from lawsuits when their services are used to upload offensive material, the law was amended in 2018 with the enactment of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, commonly referred to collectively as FOSTA-SESTA, which holds that websites can be held liable if a third-party uses their services to engage in sex trafficking. Free speech activists protested the laws' passage, alleging censorship, while many sex workers also opposed the laws, contending that online resources made their work safer and more profitable.
Despite the protections afforded by the CDA, many online services 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. In 2018 social media sites Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube faced allegations of censorship when they chose to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his website InfoWars after Jones repeatedly violated the companies' terms of service. The transgressions of Alex Jones and his website occurred at the same time that a proliferation of incendiary language, explicitly racist or sexist content, threats of violence, conspiracy theories, and false news stories linked to online troublemakers, commonly referred to as trolls, was coming under increased scrutiny online.
Social media companies and other online services that have banned or restricted users for such behavior have been accused of promoting a liberal agenda by censoring conservative voices. Though conservatives have cast themselves as victims of censorship, critics note that prominent conservative politicians and their supporters have espoused hostile condemnations of journalists and the mainstream media. In some instances, such condemnations have included calls for violence against media organizations and individual journalists. The topic of anti-conservative bias on social media also emerged in 2018 during a number of congressional hearings involving the leadership of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. At a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September, for example, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey attempted to deflect accusations of bias by asserting, "We don't consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions. Period. Impartiality is our guiding principle."