censorship, official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order. It may be imposed by governmental authority, local or national, by a religious body, or occasionally by a powerful private group. It may be applied to the mails, speech, the press, the theater, dance, art, literature, photography, the cinema, radio, television, or computer networks. Censorship may be either preventive or punitive, according to whether it is exercised before or after the expression has been made public. In use since antiquity, the practice has been particularly thoroughgoing under autocratic and heavily centralized governments, from the Roman Empire to the totalitarian states of the 20th cent.

In the United States

Censorship has existed in the United States since colonial times; its emphasis has gradually shifted from the political to the sexual.

Political Censorship

Attempts to suppress political freedom of the press in the American colonies were recurrent; one victory against censorship was the trial of John Peter Zenger. The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, speech, and religion. Nevertheless, there have been examples of official political censorship, notably in the actions taken under the Sedition Act of 1798 (see Alien and Sedition Acts), suppression of abolitionist literature in the antebellum South, and local attempts in the 19th and 20th cent. to repress publications considered radical. During the cold war many Americans worked to keep textbooks and teaching that they considered deleterious to "the American form of government" out of schools and colleges; many others opposed this effort (see academic freedom).

The issue of government secrecy was dealt with in the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, which stated that, with some exceptions, people have the right of access to government records. The issue was challenged in 1971, when a secret government study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was published by major newspapers. The government sued to stop publication, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers (see press, freedom of the).

Cultural Censorship

Long before World War I there were vigilante attacks, such as those by Anthony Comstock, on what was reckoned obscene literature, and the U.S. Post Office expanded (1873) its ban on the shipment of obscene literature and art, but it was after World War I that public controversy over censorship raged most fiercely. Until the Tariff Act was amended in 1930, many literary classics were not allowed entry into the United States on grounds of obscenity. Even after the act's amendment censorship attempts persisted, and James Joyce's Ulysses was not allowed into the country until 1933, after a court fight. Noted works of literature involved in obscenity cases included Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, and Fanny Hill by John Cleland. Over a 15-year period beginning in 1957, a series of Supreme Court decisions relaxed restrictions on so-called obscene materials, although not all obscenity prosecutions during this time were dismissed; in a famous case in the 1960s publisher Ralph Ginzburg was convicted of advertising in an obscene manner.

As Supreme Court decisions struck down many obscenity statutes, states responded by enacting laws prohibiting the sale of obscene materials to minors, and these were upheld (1968) by the Supreme Court. In decisions handed down in 1973 and 1987, the Court ruled that local governments could restrict works if they were without "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" and were at the same time seen, by local standards, to appeal to prurient interest. From the 1960s, the issue of sex education in schools was highly controversial; more recently, the question of AIDS education has stirred debate. In the 1980s, some feminists attempted to ban pornography as injurious to women. Other activists, concerned with racism and other forms of bigotry, lobbied for the suppression of what came to be called hate speech.

The producers of motion pictures, dependent for success on widespread public approval, somewhat reluctantly adopted a self-regulatory code of morals in the 1920s (see Hays, Will H.). This was replaced after 1966 by a voluntary rating system under the supervision of the Motion Picture Producers Association; the need to tailor a movie to fit a ratings category has acted as a form of censorship.

Since 1934, local radio (and later, television) stations have operated under licenses granted by the Federal Communications Commission, which is expressly forbidden to exercise censorship. However, the required periodical review of a station's license invites indirect censorship. The Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that indecent material could be banned from commercial cable-television stations but not from public-access cable stations.

The rapid growth of the Internet presents another set of issues. The Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton, was overturned by the Supreme Court for the restrictions it placed on adult access to and use of constitutionally protected material and communication on the Internet. The Child Online Protection Act (1998), which called for penalties on those offering material harmful to minors, also was successfully challenged for similar reasons. The Children's Internet Protection Act (2001), which requires libraries and schools to install antipornography filters on computers with federally financed Internet access, was upheld, however, because it was only a condition attached to the acceptance of federal funding and not a general prohibition on access.

In Other Countries

In other countries, censorship is accepted as inevitable in times of war, and it has been imposed to varying degrees even in peacetime. In the Middle Ages, attempts to silence heresy through intimidation, particularly through the establishment of the Inquisition, were examples of censorship, as are modern instances of book banning. The absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th cent. imposed strict controls, and because the Reformation had resulted in a reshuffling of the relations between church and state, these controls were used to persecute opponents of the established religion of a particular state, Roman Catholic or Protestant. A form of book-banning was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the Index, a list of publications that the faithful were forbidden to read. The last edition of the Index was published in 1948; in 1966 Pope Paul VI decreed that it would be discontinued. Paradoxically, in the lands under Calvinist domination (such as Geneva, Scotland, and England of the Puritan period) where the ideals of liberty and freedom first blossomed, regulation of private conduct and individual opinion was rigorous, and censorship was strong.

Strict censorship of all forms of public expression characterized the Soviet Union throughout most of its 74-year history. Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, was not permitted publication there, and the novels of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, considered by many to be masterpieces, were banned in 1966. Soviet censorship largely ended in 1986 under Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness).

In Britain during the 19th and 20th cent., the object of censorship has most often been literature regarded as obscene. With the passage of the Obscene Publications Act in 1857, there followed many criminal prosecutions and seizures of books. This law remained in effect until 1959, when a new law provided that the opinion of artistic or literary experts could be submitted as evidence in deciding obscenity cases and that work alleged to be obscene had to be judged as a whole rather than in part. However, when the editors of an underground periodical, Oz, were convicted in 1971 for violating postal laws, an appeal court held that a periodical need not be judged as a whole, an apparent reversal of the 1959 act.


See R. B. Downs and R. E. McCoy, ed., The First Freedom Today (1984); H. M. Clor, Obscenity and Public Morality (1985).

Act of changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good. In the past, most governments believed it their duty to regulate the morals of their people; only with the rise in the status of the individual and individual rights did censorship come to seem objectionable. Censorship may be preemptive (preventing the publication or broadcast of undesirable information) or punitive (punishing those who publish or broadcast offending material). In Europe, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches practiced censorship, as did the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Authoritarian governments such as those in China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and the former Soviet Union have employed pervasive censorship, which is generally opposed by underground movements engaged in the circulation of samizdat literature. In the U.S. in the 20th century, censorship focused largely on works of fiction deemed guilty of obscenity (e.g., James Joyce's Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover), though periodic acts of political censorship also occurred (e.g., the effort to purge school textbooks of possible left-wing content in the 1950s). In the late 20th century, some called for censorship of so-called hate speech, language deemed threatening (or sometimes merely offensive) to various subsections of the population. Censorship in the U.S. is usually opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. In Germany after World War II it became a crime to deny the Holocaust or to publish pro-Nazi publications. Seealso Pentagon Papers.

Learn more about censorship with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Self-censorship is the act of censoring or classifying one's own work (blog, book(s), film(s), or other means of expression), out of fear or deference to the sensibilities of others without an authority directly pressuring one to do so. Self-censorship is often practiced by film producers, film directors, publishers, news anchors, journalists, musicians, and other kinds of authors.

In authoritarian countries, creators of artworks may remove material that their government might find controversial for fear of sanction by their governments. In democratic countries, self-censorship can also occur, particularly in order to conform to the expectations of the market. For example, the editor of a periodical may consciously or unconsciously avoid topics that will anger advertisers or a parent company in order to protect their livelihood.

News media are often accused of self-censorship because news media can face serious backlash for controversial or hasty reporting. On following this public demand, news media have been accused of "not taking any risks." For example, certain organizations (Media Matters for America, FAIR, Democracy Now!, and the ACLU) have raised concerns about news broadcasting stations (notably FOX News) censoring their own content to be less controversial when reporting on the War on Terror. However, this is not always attributed to self-censorship; there have been attempts by the authorities to pressure news organizations to withhold particular public information in the name of security. There have also been instances beginning with the Gulf War and in subsequent conflicts, where journalists have actively sought censorship advice from military authorities in order to prevent the inadvertent revelation of military secrets.

"Self-censorship" can also be found in scientific publications. Usually, a scientist can feel discouraged from releasing their findings because of a popular ideology or political agenda. Examples of self-censorship in scientific publications that have been criticized as politically motivated include scientists under the Third Reich withholding findings that disagreed with the commonly-held beliefs in differences between races, or the refusal of these scientists under Hitler to support General Relativity (which got the reputation as "Jewish science"). Economists under the communist regime in the former Soviet Union would never voice their criticisms of a socialized economy; this is a clear example of self-censorship. More recently, certain scientists have withheld their findings related to climate changes caused by pollution and to endangered species. Professor Heinz Klatt claims that political correctness has resulted in widespread self-censorship on topics like homosexuality, (learning) disabilities, Islam, as well as sexual, racial, and genetic differences.

Taste and decency are also areas which often raise questions on self-censorship. Debates involving images or footage of murder, terrorism, war and massacre cause complaints as to the purpose to which they are put. Editors will frequently censor these images to avoid charges of prurience, shock tactics or invasion of privacy.

Online resources

Self-censorship is an important issue with the on-line news resources on which large parts of Wikipedia depends and is one of the justifications for including an "accessdate" with every link. It is taken for granted that articles on blogs can be seamlessly re-edited after people have read them, because the standard software allows it. However, since the archives of news stories held at online news sites such as BBC News or New York Times are under the control of the publisher, there is a strong temptation to withdraw or entirely delete all references to an informative article when its presence is perceived to be harmful to their reputation or commercial interests.

Examples include The Guardian withdrawing its extended interview and profile of Noam Chomsky in 2005 which was widely seen as a smear and subsequently apologized for by the editors, and the deletion of a 2006-12-21 Op-Ed piece by Daniel Johnson (journalist) in the New York Sun. There are many more notable examples.

Sometimes the old article is available in search engine caches. The website New Sniffer attempts to detect all changes that occur in the articles by regularly downloading articles and comparing with older copies. For the purposes of greater public understanding and accountability, it would be preferable if changes to articles that had already been widely read were noted in the articles, so they did not conflict with what people thought they had remembered when they went to look it up.

See also


External links

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