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The suppression or proscription of speech or writing that is deemed obscene, indecent, or unduly controversial.

The term censorship derives from the official duties of the Roman censor who, beginning in 443 b.c., conducted the census by counting, assessing, and evaluating the populace. Originally neutral in tone, the term has come to mean the suppression of ideas or images by the government or others with authority.

Throughout history, societies practiced various forms of censorship in the belief that the community, as represented by the government, was responsible for molding the individual. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato advocated various degrees of censorship in The Republic; the content of important texts and the dissemination of knowledge were tightly controlled in ancient Chinese society as is much information in modern China; and for centuries the Roman Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum proscribed much literature as contrary to the church's teachings.

The English-speaking world began wrestling with issues of censorship in the seventeenth century. In his Areopagitica (1644), John Milton argued in favor of the right to publish, free from government restraint. In the United States, the first amendment to the Constitution (1787) guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. When a U.S. government agency attempts to prohibit speech or writing, the party being censored frequently raises these First Amendment rights. Such cases usually involve communication that the government perceives as harmful to itself or the public.


In some cases, the government can constitutionally censor the speech of those who receive federal funding. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 111 S. Ct. 1759, 114 L. Ed. 2d 233 (1991), that, without restricting First Amendment rights, the government can ban abortion counseling in federally funded health clinics.

Prisoners' Mail

If the government's interest is penological it also has broader rights to censor speech. Prisoners' outgoing mail can be censored in order to thwart escape plans, shield the recipients from obscene or menacing letters, or circumvent inaccurate or adverse reports about prison conditions. Under the Supreme Court ruling in Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 94 S. Ct. 1800, 40 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1974), prison administrators can censor prisoners' personal correspondence only if it is necessary to maintain security, order, or rehabilitation efforts. Such censorship can be neither random nor excessively troublesome.


Perhaps the most visible form of censorship is that affecting the entertainment industry. Theater and film, as types of public entertainment, affect the common interest and can hence be subjected to certain types of governmental regulation. But attempts to regulate or censor often risk obstructing the free speech rights of playwrights, screenwriters, filmmakers, performers, and distributors.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is lawful to censor obscene entertainment to safeguard children from pornography and to protect adults from unknowingly or involuntarily viewing indecent materials (Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 88 S. Ct. 1274, 20 L. Ed. 2d 195 [1968]). Although Supreme Court interpretation permits individuals to view obscenity in the privacy of their homes (Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 89 S. Ct. 1243, 22 L. Ed. 2d 542 [1969]), theaters and movie houses are public places and therefore subject to regulation (Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49, 93 S. Ct. 2628, 37 L. Ed. 2d 446 [1973]). The difficulty with such censorship is in trying to determine what is "obscene."

In miller v. california, 413 U.S. 15, 93 S. Ct. 2607, 37 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1973), the Supreme Court concluded that a work is obscene and can be regulated if it appeals to a viewer's prurient interest; portrays sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The Court further ruled that interpretations of this definition may vary across the United States and that communities may apply their own local standards to determine obscenity.

To avoid government censorship, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) regulates itself through a voluntary rating system. The system does not have statutory authority but is used to help the industry conform with statutes designed to protect children. Recognizing a 1968 Supreme Court decision that favored limited censorship for minors (Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 88 S. Ct. 1274, 20 L. Ed. 2d 195), the MPAA devised a rating system based on the viewer's age. A G rating signals that subject matter is suitable for general audiences; PG stands for Parental Guidance Suggested; PG-13 strongly advises guidance for children under age 13 because of possibly inappropriate material; R requires accompaniment by an adult for children under age 17, or 18 in some states; and NC-17 or X prohibit anyone under age 17, or 18 in some states, from entering the theater.

Radio and television have also met with governmental pressure to control the content of their broadcasts. Spurred by the belief that violence on television adversely affects children's behavior and attitudes, Congress has attempted several times to encourage the media to adopt voluntary guidelines in the hope that less violence on television will lead to a less violent society. Although none of Congress's acts have been deemed outright censorship, government intrusion into broadcasting to discourage certain types of speech has not been welcomed by all. The various pieces of legislation raise questions about media self-censorship and the role of the federal communications commission (FCC) in regulating freedom of expression.

In response to congressional pressure the national association of broadcasters adopted the Family Viewing Policy in 1974 to limit the first hour of prime-time programming to material suitable for families. The policy was found unconstitutional in 1976 (Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. v. F.C.C., 423 F. Supp. 1064 [C.D. Cal., 1976]).

Congress addressed the content of children's television with the Children's Television Act of 1990 (47 U.S.C.A. §§ 303a–303b [Supp. III 1991]), which limits the amount of advertising on children's television and compels broadcasters to air educational programs. Failure to comply with the act could jeopardize renewal of a station's license. Critics point out that the act has not improved children's programming because of its vague standards and the FCC's disinclination to enforce it.

The Television Violence Act (47 U.S.C.A. § 303c [Supp. III 1991]), proposed in 1986 by Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.), was signed into law by President george h.w. bush in December 1990. This act, which expired in 1993, was intended to prompt the networks, cable industry, and independent stations to decrease the amount of violence shown on television. Although it did not constitute direct government regulation, the act was criticized as a governmental attempt to impose its values on society by discouraging, if not suppressing, unpopular ideas.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, 110 Stat. 56, required television manufacturers to create a chip, known as the V-chip, which allows users, presumably parents, to block out programs based on their sexual or violent content. The chip, which has been installed in television sets manufactured since 1999, operates in conjunction with a voluntary rating system implemented by TV broadcasters that rates programs for violence and sexual content.

Radio broadcasts have also come under scrutiny. In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 98 S. Ct. 3026, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1073 (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that a daytime broadcast of George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" monologue violated the prohibition of indecency in 18 U.S.C.A. § 1464 (1948) and was therefore subject to regulation. To many, this ruling gave the FCC further authority to censor speech and dictate values.


Just as the entertainment industry has faced regulation or censorship for allegedly violent, obscene, or indecent material, so has the recording industry. Claiming that some popular music erodes morals by encouraging violence, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity, the Parents' Music Resource Center, founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore, the wife of the future vice president, albert gore, successfully lobbied the music industry to place warning labels on records that may feature lyrics inappropriate for children.

Concerned about the rising rate of violent crime against law enforcement officers, the assistant director of public affairs for the federal bureau of investigation (FBI) sent a letter in August 1989 to Priority Records to protest a rap group's lyrics. N.W.A., a Los Angeles-based rap group, recorded on its album Straight Outta Compton the song "Fuck tha Police," which violently protested police brutality. Although the letter from the FBI was a protest, not an attempt at regulation, many in the music industry interpreted it as an example of indirect censorship through intimidation.

Perhaps the most famous legal proceedings to censor music involved the rap group 2 Live Crew. In early 1990, a Florida circuit judge banned all sales of the group's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be on the grounds that the lyrics of several of its songs, including "Me So Horny," violated community standards for obscenity. The group brought suit to have the ban lifted in Skyywalker Records v. Navarro, 742 F. Supp. 638 (S.D. Fla. 1990), but the judge upheld the obscenity ruling. A record store owner was arrested for continuing to sell the album and two members of 2 Live Crew were arrested on obscenity charges after a performance. The band members were acquitted of all charges in October 1990, but the debate continues between those demanding free expression in music and those seeking to censor allegedly obscene material.


For almost as long as artists have been creating art, governments have both supported and censored artists' work. Ancient Athens, the Roman Empire, and the medieval Catholic Church financed many projects, whereas totalitarian regimes, for example, banned many works and repressed artists. The U.S. Congress was reluctant to fund art that might subsequently be construed as national art, or as government-approved art until 1960s activism encouraged it to do so. In 1965, the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities was established to foster excellence in the arts. It is composed of two divisions, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Among its many interests, the NEA provides stipends to deserving artists.

Controversy over the role of government support of the arts arose in the late 1980s with two artists who received NEA funding. In 1988, the photographer Andres Serrano received harsh condemnation for his photograph titled Piss Christ, which depicted a plastic crucifix floating in a jar of Serrano's urine. Numerous senators sent letters of protest to the NEA, insisting that the agency cease underwriting vulgar art. A second furor arose in 1989 over the work of another photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, who received NEA support for his work, which depicted flowers, nude children, and homosexuality and sadomasochism.

Senator jesse helms (R-N.C.) argued the most vociferously against the NEA's choices and introduced legislation to ban funding of "obscene or indecent art" (1989 H.R. 2788 [codified at 20 U.S.C.A. § 953 et seq. (1989)]). The Helms Amendment, adopted in October 1989, gave the NEA great power and latitude to define obscenity and quash alternative artistic visions. To enforce the new amendment, the NEA established

an "obscenity pledge," which required artists to promise they would not use government money to create works of an obscene nature. The art world strongly resisted this measure: many museum directors resigned in protest and several well-known artists returned their NEA grants.

Two important cases tested the power of the NEA to censor artistic production. In Bella Lewitsky Dance Foundation v. Frohnmayer, 754 F. Supp. 774 (C.D. Cal. 1991), a dance company refused to sign the obscenity pledge and sued on the ground that the pledge was unconstitutional. A California district court agreed that the pledge violated the First Amendment right to free speech and that its vagueness denied the dance company due process under the fifth amendment.

In New School v. Frohnmayer, No. 90-3510 (S.D.N.Y. 1990), the New School for Social Research, in New York City, turned down a grant, claiming that the obscenity pledge acted as prior restraint and therefore breached the school's First Amendment rights. Before the constitutionality of the prior restraint argument was decided, the NEA released the school from its obligation to sign the pledge.

The NEA abolished the obscenity pledge in November 1990, but in its place instituted a "decency clause" (1990 Amendments, Pub. L. No. 101-512, § 103(b), 104 Stat. 1963 [codified at 20 U.S.C.A. § 954(d)(1990)]), which required award recipients to ensure that their works met certain standards of decency. Failure to comply with this demand could mean suspension of grant payments.

Again the art world protested. In Finley v. NEA, 795 F. Supp. 1457 (C.D. Cal. 1992), artists known as the NEA Four—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller—sued the NEA over the decency clause. A California district court agreed with the artists. The Finley court held that the decency clause, like the obscenity pledge, was unconstitutional because its vagueness denied the artists the due process guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and because its too-general restriction suppressed speech.


U.S. parents send their children to public schools to receive an education and to learn the fundamental values on which their democratic society is based. Conflict ensues when parents believe that certain schoolbooks contain material that is objectionable on political, moral, or religious grounds and should be banned in order to protect their children from exposure to allegedly harmful ideas. In some instances school boards have responded by physically removing books from school library shelves. In general, advocates of book banning maintain that censorship is warranted to redress social ills, whereas critics believe that freedom of speech is more important and useful to society than imposing values through censorship.

Book banning as a way to remedy social problems was first tested by the Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 102 S. Ct. 2799, 73 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1982). In Pico, parents objected to nine books in the high school library, most of which were subsequently removed by the school board. The nine books were Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris; Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas; Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes; Laughing Boy, by Oliver LaFarge; Black Boy, by Richard Wright; A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, by Alice Childress; Soul on Ice, by eldridge cleaver; and Go Ask Alice, by an anonymous author.

Pico debated the authority of local school boards to censor material in the interest of protecting students. The case reached the Supreme Court because lower courts were unable to devise standards for testing the constitutionality of book removal. The Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for public school boards to abridge students' First Amendment rights by banning books. Although school boards have the power to determine which books should sit on library shelves, they do not have the authority to censor.

Books published by commercial presses for sale to the general public sometimes meet with harsh condemnation and subsequent action that could be tantamount to censorship. In November 1990, Simon and Schuster canceled its contract with author Bret E. Ellis to publish his novel American Psycho, citing the work's graphic violence and sexual brutality. The National Writers Union decried the cancellation as contrary to free speech and artistic expression and as censorship. The publishing house defended its editorial judgment by claiming it did not want to put its imprint on a book of questionable taste and value. Vintage Books, a division of Random House, soon acquired the novel, and published it in March 1991.

Students' Speech

Students' free speech rights sometimes clash with schools' interest in maintaining control of public education. Students' First Amendment liberties were affirmed by the landmark tinker v. des moines independent community school district, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969), which ruled that public school students could not be penalized for wearing symbols, such as black armbands, to protest the vietnam war.

Two subsequent cases dealing with issues of censorship in school newspapers pointed to a more restrictive judicial view of students' right to free expression. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 108 S. Ct. 562, 98 L. Ed. 2d 592 (1988), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Hazelwood, Missouri, school principal who removed several articles from a student newspaper. The articles dealt with teen pregnancy and a student's feelings about her parents' divorce. The court in Hazelwood held that a school newspaper is not a public forum, and thus granted school officials the right to determine what type of student speech is appropriate and to regulate such speech.

Three years later, the ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Clark County School District, 941 F.2d 817 (9th Cir. 1991), was based on Hazelwood. In Planned Parenthood, a public high school newspaper solicited advertisements from local businesses, including Planned Parenthood. The principal refused to allow Planned Parenthood to place an advertisement in school publications and Planned Parenthood sued the school district. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision that a public high school publication is not a public forum and that the school could therefore accept or reject advertisements. Both Hazelwood and Planned Parenthood concluded that because public high schools are nonpublic forums, school districts can apply a limited degree of censorship.

Hundreds of public universities in the United States have speech codes to regulate students' choice of words. Speech can be constitutionally curtailed in some circumstances. For example, public colleges and universities can forbid threats of violence, prohibit obscene language and conduct (although it is extremely difficult to define or prove obscenity), and punish students for using defamatory speech against each other, all without violating the First Amendment. Numerous cases have successfully contested free speech limitations on campus, suggesting that a majority of these codes are unconstitutional.

In Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852 (E.D. Mich. 1989), a biopsychology student maintained that the university's speech code prevented him from freely discussing controversial ideas about biologically based differences between the sexes and races. A district court ruled that the university's code proscribed too great a range of speech and therefore was an unconstitutional infringement on the plaintiff's First Amendment rights. The court also held that the overbroad nature of the code denied his due process rights.

A University of Wisconsin student was accused of violating the university's speech codes by yelling rude comments at a woman. In U.W.M. Post, Inc. v. Board of Regents, 774 F. Supp. 1163 (E.D. Wis. 1991), the university's speech code was also struck down as overbroad. Two years later school officials punished fraternity brothers at george mason University for dressing in drag and staging an "ugly woman contest." In Iota X Chapter v. George Mason University, 993 F.2d 386 (1993), the Fourth Circuit found that the university had violated the First Amendment because it did not sanction the fraternity merely for its conduct, but rather for the message conveyed by the "ugly woman contest," which ran counter to the views the university sought to foster.


Computer-mediated communication grows explosively every year and in some ways outpaces and obviates current legal principles. The prevailing concept of law applies to real-world events and transactions, and, as those in the legal field are realizing, may unravel when exercised in cyberspace. As more and more people transmit widely divergent messages on the electronic highway, issues of free speech and censorship become increasingly complicated and regulations difficult to enforce.

The first case of criminal prosecution of electronic communication involved the distribution of pornography over an electronic bulletin board system (BBS). In United States v. Thomas, No. CR-94-20019-G (W.D. Tenn. 1994), Robert Thomas and Carleen Thomas were found guilty of disseminating obscene materials by interstate telephone lines and computer. From their home in California, the Thomases ran an adults-only private BBS from which subscribers could download computer graphics files and order sexually explicit photo-graphs and videotapes while on-line. To gather evidence against the couple, a Memphis postal inspector, under an assumed name, downloaded to his computer many of the pornographic electronic files and ordered tapes.

The Thomases were charged with, among other things, transporting obscene materials across state lines. The couple attempted to transfer their case to the Northern District of California, so that their materials would be measured against that community's standards of obscenity, rather than the obscenity standards of the Western District of Tennessee. The district judge denied their request, noting that in obscenity prosecutions the trial can be held either in the district from which the material was sent or where it was received.

The "virtual" nature of cyberspace poses a number of problems for courts and legislatures on the issue of obscenity. Among the most difficult of these is the issue of community standards. Because the internet brings together people from all over the United States and all over the world, it defies identification with any particular community. Other difficulties are the criminal element of knowledge and the issue of dissemination. Persons may post and receive information on Internet bulletin boards without the knowledge of those who maintain the BBS, making it difficult to determine whether the BBS operators "knowingly disseminated" obscene materials.

In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which punished disseminating "indecent" material over the Internet. The Supreme Court struck down the law in Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 117 S.Ct. 2329, 138 L.Ed.2d 874 (1997). Although the Court recognized the "legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials," it ruled that the CDA abridged freedom of speech and therefore was unconstitutional. The Court also noted that its previous decisions limiting free speech out of concern for the protection of children were inapplicable in this case, and that the CDA differed from the laws and orders upheld in previous cases in significant ways. For example, the CDA did not allow parents to consent to their children's use of restricted materials; it was not limited to commercial transactions; it failed to provide a definition of "indecent"; and its broad prohibitions were not limited to particular times of the day. Finally, the act's restrictions could not be analyzed as a form of time, place, and manner regulation because it was a content-based blanket restriction on speech.

Congress lost little time in responding to this decision. In 1998, it quickly passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which would make it illegal to use the World Wide Web to communicate "for commercial purposes" any material considered to be "harmful to minors." The law also incorporated the three-part obscenity test that the Supreme Court formulated in Miller v. California. The american civil liberties union (ACLU) and a group of on-line website operators challenged the constitutionality of COPA, arguing that it was over-broad. In addition, the plaintiffs contended that the use of the community standards test would give any community in the United States the ability to file civil and criminal lawsuits under COPA. This meant that the most conservative community in the country could dictate the content of the Internet. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia agreed with these arguments and the government appealed again to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564, 122 S.Ct. 1700, 152 L.Ed.2d 771 (2002), produced a decision that failed to give a clear direction. The use of community standards did not by itself make the statute overbroad and unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Apart from that conclusion, the Court could not agree, with five of the justices producing separate opinions. A majority, however, had reservations about the COPA. A number of the justices expressed concern that without a national standard it would be difficult for operators of Internet services to know when they had crossed a line and had subjected themselves to liability. The case was remanded to the lower courts for a full examination of the law on all issues. The fate of COPA is likely to be decided by the Court in a future decision.

As the popularity of the Internet continues to grow, more issues involving censorship are likely to appear. And with the advancement of high-speed Internet access, movies, videos, text, and pictures can now be downloaded with greater ease, creating even more opportunities for legal debate.

further readings

Bussian, James R. 1995. "Anatomy of the Campus Speech Code: An Examination of Prevailing Regulations." South Texas Law Review 36 (February).

Butler, Deborah A. 1992. "Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada v. Clark County School District: The Evolution of the Public Forum Doctrine." Wayne Law Review 38 (summer).

Byassee, William S. 1995. "Jurisdiction of Cyberspace: Applying Real World Precedent to the Virtual Community." Wake Forest Law Review 30 (spring).

"The Call to Campus Conduct Policies: Censorship or Constitutionally Permissible Limitations on Speech." 1990. Minnesota Law Review 75 (October).

Couvares, Francis G., and Charles Musser. 1996. Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Foerstel, Herbert N. 2002. Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Rev. ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Kolbert, Kathryn, and Zak Mettger. 2002. Justice Talking: Censoring the Web: Leading Advocates Debate Today's Most Controversial Issues. New York: New Press.

Madved, Lory. 1992. "Protecting the Freedom of Speech Rights of Students: The Special Status of the High School Library." Capital Univ. Law Review 21 (fall).

Schlegel, Julia W. 1993. "The Television Violence Act of 1990: A New Program for Government Censorship?" Federal Communications Law Journal 46 (December).

Strossen, Nadine. 1996. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York: Anchor Books.

Walker, Michael W. 1993. "Artistic Freedom v. Censorship: The Aftermath of the NEA's New Funding Restrictions." Washington Univ. Law Quarterly 71 (fall).


Art Law; Entertainment Law; Movie Rating; Schools and School Districts.

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Censorship is essentially a “policy of restricting the public expression of ideas, opinions, conceptions and impulses which have or are believed to have the capacity to undermine the governing authority or the social and moral order which that authority considers itself bound to protect” (Lasswell 1930, p. 290). Censorship usually takes two forms: prior, which refers to advance suppression; and post facto, which involves suppression after publication or pronouncement has taken place. Although it is more frequently practiced under autocratic regimes, it is also present, in varied forms, in those states normally viewed as Western liberal democracies; and its execution is as varie-gated as are the states and governments involved. Broadly speaking, however, those who favor and those who oppose censorship normally bracket themselves with one of two approaches to society as represented by great names of the past. The former agree with Plato, St. Augustine, and Machiavelli that those who are qualified to identify evil should be empowered to prevent its dissemination. The latter, siding with Aristotle, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and John Dewey, maintain that a man is free only so long as he is empowered to make his own choices.

In its contemporary form, censorship is exercised both by public and by private authorities. Although it is still predominantly associated with governmental (public) action, its exercise by private groups—with religious as well as secular interests—is becoming more common. In the United States, since the end of World War n, the rise of private vigilante groups in a number of areas of everyday life clearly indicates this trend. The erstwhile dichotomy (Lasswell 1930, p. 291) of either political or religious censorship no longer suffices. Today, censorship, both public and private, may be generally grouped into four categories: political censorship; religious censorship; censorship against obscenity, i.e., censorship of morals; and censorship affecting academic freedom. It is important to remember, however, that these are merely categories of convenience and that a given act of censorship may, of course, embrace more than one category. Thus, the Tridentine Rules (formulated at the Council of Trent in 1564 under the guidance of Pope Pius IV) were religious in origin, but to some extent they were involved with obscenity; their enforcement was political; and there was then no academic freedom as we know it today. The investigations of alleged subversive influences in American schools, colleges, and universities in the years following World War n had political, as well as educational, overtones.


The history of censorship, so closely linked with a basic sense of insecurity, represents a continuum of the battle between the individual and society and can be sketched only briefly here. Turning first to the Bible (Jer. 36.1–26), we find that the prophet Jeremiah encountered censorship when the book he had dictated to Baruch was mutilated by King Jehoiakim. During classical antiquity, censorship was sporadically applied. In the fifth century b.c., Sparta placed a ban on certain forms of poetry, music, and dance, because its rulers believed, or wished to believe, that these cultural activities tended to induce effeminacy and licentiousness. For their liberal thoughts on religious matters, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes felt the censor’s sting. Republican Rome considered itself devoted to virtue and assumed the right to censor any citizen who did not embrace that concept in the cultural realm. The theater was banned by the censor, except on the occasion of certain games (where tradition bestowed upon dramatic art a degree of license in both gesture and speech). Although there is no conclusive evidence of literary censorship either in Rome or Greece, the famed poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea area by Emperor Augustus, allegedly because of his “licentiousness” but more likely because of his political views.

In the era of the Christian church, the earliest and most extreme manifestation of censorship is found in the Apostolic Constitutions, said to have been written in a.d. 95 by St. Clement of Rome at the dictates of the apostles. The constitutions forbade Christians to read any books of the gentiles, since it was thought that the Scriptures were all a true believer need read. There then followed a long series of prohibitions issued by the early church fathers, among them the death penalty edicts of the Council of Nicaea and the Emperor Constantine against the pens of Arius and Porphyry in 325; the decree of 399 by the Council of Alexandria under Bishop Theophilus, forbidding the Origens to read and own books; the stern punitive measures, akin to the book-burning days of the Hitler era, by Pope Leo I in 446; and the first papal Index, which made its appearance in 499 under Pope Gelasius. The concept of the Index, which was formalized by the amended Tridentine Rules, embracing a list of proscribed books for Roman Catholic readers, remained in existence until 1967.

During the Middles Ages a new version of prior censorship commenced: the submission of manuscripts by writers to their superiors, both as a matter of courtesy and as a prophylactic against subsequent censure. But with the advent of printing and with steady cultural growth, the ecclesiastic authorities insisted upon formal, organized censorship. In 1501 Pope Alexander vi issued his famous bull against printing of books, which was designed to protect the vast domain of the Church of Rome against heresy. Even more drastic measures were taken by the Scottish Estates in 1551. By 1586, all books printed in England had to be read and approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London prior to publication. But the written word was not all that felt the censor’s power in England; it was extended to drama by the public authorities, once religious drama, always under the control of the church, had become obsolete. In 1693, England substituted punitive for prior censorship of printing. This form essentially exists in many lands now and is generally much preferred to prior censorship, if there must be censorship. Probably the best-known illustration of this type of censorship is the John Peter Zenger case in 1735, often referred to as the birth of freedom of the press; for New York Governor William Cosby was unsuccessful in his gross attempt to silence and punish the courageous printer (see Zenger 1957, pp. 3–131).

It should be noted here that the triumph of Protestantism, and the subsequent rise of the nation-state, had brought about a significant switch in emphasis in the employment of censorship. Practically speaking, the monarchs became separated from the church, and to a considerable extent their interests in censorship no longer coincided. Thus, the compelling force necessary to sustain censorship was no longer concerned with religious beliefs. In those instances in which a state still guarded against blasphemy or heresy, it was from the conviction that these were often antecedent steps to sedition and treason, especially where the authority for the monarch’s position came from the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Censorship was still aimed at beliefs and facts, but the orientation had switched from the religious to the political arena.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the transition years in the development of the freedoms and rights of men, which we value so much. Here the first voices began to ring out for the rights of the individual against the state, so that by 1695 the last formal governmental restraint upon literature in England had been withdrawn. Among the voices who made themselves heard in those centuries were Milton, Spinoza, Voltaire, and Locke.

Prior to this transition period, sundry intriguing devices had been employed to look after the interests of the monarch. King Henry VIII had entrusted the control of books to the infamous Court of Star Chamber. Queen Elizabeth maintained control by giving the Stationers’ Company a monopoly on printing, for which they reciprocated by hunting out all undesirable books. Coincident with this she granted powers of suppression to the archbishops of Canterbury and York.

The Stuarts brought with their rule even more severe censorship, allowing their bishops control over the importation of books. The first breakthrough for free thought came in 1640 when the Long Parliament abolished the Court of Star Chamber. This brief respite lasted until 1643, when Parliament reintroduced licensing. This was the specific act that resulted in Milton’s eloquent plea for free speech, his Areopagitica. In this work, he exposes the many absurdities, anomalies, and tyrannies inherent in literary censorship. During the Restoration, the devices of censorship employed by the former monarchs were maintained with the passage of the Licensing Act of 1662, which was aimed at “heretical, seditious, schismatical or offensive books or pamphlets.”

The move toward individual rights being generated in England at this time reached its culmination in 1695, when the Licensing Act was not renewed, and governmental censorship temporarily disappeared from the English scene. Although the English had gained their freedom, in those nations where Catholicism still held sway, there was very little freedom to express ideas that would offend the church. This tradition has lasted even into the modern era in such nations as Spain.

The eighteenth century is conspicuous in historical perspective because of the freedom of expression that it attained. Even in the colonies, with the spread of the Great Awakening (dating from about 1740), the growth of freedom from the chains of Puritan control was evident. By 1789, the freedoms of the bill of rights were accepted as the natural heritage of all men. The remarkable feature of this phenomenon, both in England and America, was that it was a reality, not just an idea on a piece of paper.

It is in the field of morals—the area of censorship commonly classified as that of obscenity— that not only the most widespread but the most extreme forms of censorship and attempted censorship have transpired during the past two or three centuries. This censorship has been both on a public and private level, the former chiefly by virtue of a host of defense-against-obscenity statutes and ordinances, the latter by pressure groups, chief among them the Catholic church, whose emphasis in the realm of censorship has perceptibly changed from the old preoccupation with heresy to one that emphasizes morals, although the religious overtones are understandably present. But public and private aims and designs again merge here.

Although in certain types of censorship the political authority is concerned with defending the status quo and its position in it, this is not true of censorship of morals. More often than not, state action is not in defense of itself but in the form of a service to some influential members of the polity, in ridding the society of certain ideas that are considered offensive by these influential members. The common method of achieving these ends is the formation of watchdog groups that comb the arts and letters and upon finding works— books, plays, movies, etc.—that they consider obscene strive either for their official suppression or for private boycotts. The first of these societies, the English Society for the Suppression of Vice, appeared in London in 1802. It was to be the forebear of such American vigilante groups as Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the New England Watch and Ward Society (Craig 1962, pp. 138–139).

The effectiveness of these groups in the United States is evidenced by the vast amount of obscenity legislation that has been passed in the last century. Beginning with the clause in the Tariff Act of 1842 that barred the importation of obscene matter, American legislatures have produced a multitude of statutes designed to protect the minds and morals of both children and adults in our society. The 1920s through the 1940s marked the height of this moralistic legislation.

In England, the single most important piece of censorship legislation was the famous Campbell Act of 1857 (the Obscene Publications Act of 1857), named for its proponent, who was the lord chief justice. There was a great cry against it in Parliament, because in Campbell’s attempt to strike down the sale of obvious hard-core pornography from the shelves of the bookstores of Holy-well Street in London, he had left few safeguards to defend against similar attacks upon all literature that dealt with sex. The act was finally passed when Campbell defined an obscene work as written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth, and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.

However, his successor, Lord Cockburn, in the grasp of the Victorians, did not so limit the obscene. In the famous Hicklin case he said, “the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (L.R3/QB/371, 1868). Using standards such as this, the Comstocks on both sides of the Atlantic—indeed throughout the world—infiltrated various boards of censorship, and by the turn of the century succeeded in reducing “acceptable” literature to that fit for reading by children. At that time, more than one author was endangering his chances of publication if he referred to a leg as a “leg,” rather than calling it a “limb.” Starting in the late 1920s, however, American federal courts have been instrumental in salvaging some semblance of reasonableness in these matters.

In a series of opinions, the most important of which were the combined 1957 cases Roth v. U.S. and Alberts v. California (354 U.S. 476), the Supreme Court both defined the obscene and detailed the protections to which literature accused of being obscene was entitled. Associate Justice William Brennan, in his opinion, made clear that “obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press,” because it is “utterly without redeeming social importance” (354 U.S. 484, 485). However, he cautioned that “sex and obscenity are not synonymous,” and the portrayal of sex, for example, in art, literature, and scientific works, “is entitled to constitutional protection as long as it is not obscene.” But his judicial test is not entirely helpful: Material is obscene when “to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest” (354 U.S. 487). This standard, and its later application by the courts to specific works, seems to indicate that the Supreme Court’s view of what literature is obscene in modern America is limited to that genre of literature generally known as hard-core pornography. But the need to define hard-core pornography reintroduces the basic dilemma of drawing lines.

A categorized, comprehensive list of works censored in the United States was compiled in 1940 by Morris Ernst, one of the foremost crusaders against censorship. It includes some of the world’s greatest classics, for example, works by Homer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Darwin (Ernst & Lindey 1940, pp. 228–230).

The history of censorship in France and the other European nations has an amazing historical similarity to that of America. The giants of French literature, such as Baudelaire, Hugo, Verlaine, and Zola, have felt the same stings of censors as their counterparts in English. The modern laws regarding obscenity in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, roughly parallel those of America; whereas those of the Scandinavian nations are a little more lenient. This is probably a reflection of the different attitudes toward sex prevailing in those nations.

Censorship in the world of dictatorships must be viewed from a different perspective, of course. Essentially, the rights of individuals in these nations are at a pre-Renaissance level in terms of the Western world. Consequently, censorship there is designed to propagandize as well as to forbid. This has been especially true in the totalitarian dictatorships, where complete control of the mind is a prerequisite for complete control of the society.


In its most general form, censorship is involved with the realm of ideas, ideas that naturally must take the form of something written or spoken in order to be censorable. Censorship implies that certain ideas are not only invalid, but that they should not be presented; that they constitute a genuine danger. In Lasswell’s terms of “who gets what, why and how,” censorship is thus concerned with controlling “dangerous” expression of ideas. It follows, then, that those who have been most successful in controlling ideas that endanger their interests are those who already possess authority. Hence, the most successful practitioners of censorship through the ages have been the authority figures themselves—church, monarchs, dictators. Those in nonpublic positions, who desire the suppression of certain ideas but do not of themselves have the necessary official authority to do so, will thus endeavor to enlist the aid of whatever authority may be promising. Because this is often difficult, if not impossible, private groups in today’s Western democracies then resort to personal pressure tactics, designed to intimidate those who have influence over, or who are in command of, channels of communication. A pertinent illustration of this technique, very successfully employed in the United States since the 1940s and 1950s (particularly during the McCarthy era), has been the so-called blacklisting of controversial literary figures as well as performing artists, thus blocking their employment in certain media of communication, notably the movies, radio, and television—the live stage having more successfully resisted that type of pressure (see Cogley 1956, passim).

Far less successful, especially in the United States, however, have been attempts to censor the press, which has enjoyed a unique position of communication freedom, even more so than in traditionally censorship-leery Britain. Although press censorship has continued in many lands even in the 1960s, not excluding certain Western democracies (France, for example), the Supreme Court of the United States again made quite clear in 1964 that the press is not only not censorable by way of prior restraint but that it cannot even be sued for allegedly libelous statements unless deliberate malice is proved conclusively in a court of law (The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, decided March 9, 1964, 84 U.S. Sup. Ct. 710).

The bases of censorship are themselves largely repugnant to the ideas of Western liberal tradition, yet even the West must comprehend the three possible rationalizations that seem to exist for censorship.

The first rationalization is that ideas presented, or about to be presented, are “false” and/or “dangerous” by the standards of the authorities in power and that they must hence be suppressed or punished.

Related to this is the second rationale for censorship, equally obnoxious to Western traditions, that of elitism, the justification of which goes back to Plato and the Republic. Here, the belief is that the minds of those who would be subjected to the ideas to be censored are not capable of seeing the “falsity” and would hence be led astray. Western political tradition rejects this notion, but many a private pressure group in the West does not, as the persistent attempts by them, and at times by public authorities, to censor school textbooks demonstrate to this day. Yet any historical investigation will quickly prove that those who have set themselves up as being uniquely qualified to ferret out the truth have been no more capable of doing so than their adversaries.

The third rationale for censorship seems to be the one that stands on strongest grounds. Ideas that lead to “antisocial action”—for example, hard-core pornography—may be censored. Here, however, a crucial distinction enters: We are no longer so much in the realm of ideas as in the realm of overt action, and it is here that even the West may wish to, indeed may have to, draw a line between the cherished freedom of expression and the right of society to establish a modicum of standards of overt behavior. How, where, and by whom such a line is to be drawn is the peculiar dilemma of those who love and cherish the precious tradition of ordered liberty.

Henry J. Abraham

[See alsoAcademic freedom; Constitutional law, article oncivil liberties; Freedom; Totalitarianism.]


Chafee, Zechariah, Jr. 1941 Free Speech in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. -→ Supersedes Chafee’s Freedom of Speech, 1920.

Clyde, William M. 1934 The Struggle for the Freedom of the Press From Caxton to Cromwell. St. Andrews University Publications, No. 37. Oxford Univ. Press.

Cogley, John 1956 Report on Blacklisting. 2 vols. New York: Fund for the Republic.

Craig, Alec (1962) 1963 Suppressed Books: A History of the Conception of Literary Obscenity. New York: World. -→ First published as The Banned Books of England and Other Countries: A Study of the Conception of Literary Obscenity.

Ernst, Morris L.; and Lindey, Alexander 1940 The Censor Marches On: Recent Milestones in the Administration of the Obscenity Law in the United States. New York: Doubleday. -→ Still a classic.

Ernst, Morris L.; and Schwartz, Alan U. 1964 Censorship: The Search for the Obscene. New York: Macmillan.

Faulk, J. Henry 1964 Fear on Trial. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gardiner, Harold, S. J. (1958) 1961 Catholic Viewpoint on Censorship. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Gellhorn, Walter 1956 Individual Freedom and Governmental Restraints. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press.

Haney, Robert W. 1960 Comstockery in America: Patterns of Censorship and Control. Boston: Beacon. -→ Superb analysis of America’s privately engendered drive for “morality” and “purity” in social action.

Hart, H. L. A. 1963 Law, Liberty and Morality. Stanford Univ. Press.

Kilpatrick, James J. 1960 The Smut Peddlers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Lasswell, Harold 1930 Censorship. Volume 3, pages 290–294 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Levy, Leonard W. 1960 Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Mc Cormick, John; and MacInnes, Mairi (editors) 1962 Versions of Censorship: An Anthology. Chicago, III.: Aldine.

MacIver, Robert M. 1955 Academic Freedom in Our Time. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Paul, James C. N.; and Schwartz, Murray L. 1961 Federal Censorship: Obscenity in the Mail. New York: Free Press.

Swayze, Harold 1962 Political Control of Literature in the USSR, 1946–1959. Russian Research Center Studies, No. 44. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Wiggins, James R. (1956) 1964 Freedom or Secrecy. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Zenger, John Peter 1957 The Trial of Peter Zenger. Edited and with introduction and notes by Vincent Buranelli. New York Univ. Press. → Trial in the Supreme Court of Judicature of the province of New York in 1735 for the offense of printing and publishing a libel against the government.

Zenger, John Peter 1963 A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, Printer of the New York Weekly Journal, by James Alexander. Edited by Stanley N. Katz. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

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Censorship comprises many methods of preventing the publication or dissemination of speech, printed matter, art, theater, music, electronic media, or other forms of expression. The most common subjects that are censored are religion, politics, and sex. The usual justification is that such expression is subversive, blasphemous, heretical, obscene, pornographic, or otherwise offensive or harmful. Censorship can take place before publication, known as prior restraint, in the form of requirements such as licensing and prior review. It can also take place after publication in such forms as banning, burning, or boycotting of the published product and fining, imprisonment, or the death penalty for the author or publisher.

The English term is derived from the ancient Roman institution of the censors, two elected magistrates responsible for overseeing the morals of the Roman people and who could warn or ban certain people or behavior at will. In later times censorship has often been carried out by individuals or committees appointed by religious or political authorities, but it can also be carried out by self-appointed vigilantes. The term has been expanded to include self-censorship, in which one does not express something for fear of the consequences, and market censorship, in which suppression of a publication is caused by the refusal of advertisers to advertise in it or of the public to buy it.

The political ideology of modern liberalism is generally against censorship on the ground that it limits freedom unnecessarily. By far the largest body of reflection on censorship has been written by its opponents. Those who are in a position to impose censorship have usually done it without articulating their reasons in any depth. Communitarian and autocratic ideologies such as socialism, national socialism, communism, absolute monarchism, and theocracy have generally done little more than assert that censorship protects the community and its leaders against perceived threats. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there has been an upsurge in articulation of justifications for censorship. Radical feminists and spokespersons for ethnic, religious, or formerly colonized groups have supported censorship of pornography, "hate speech," and criticism of themselves, pointing to the harm that uncensored expression can do.

Sex has been the target of much censorship. Objectionable sexual material is variously labeled obscene, pornographic, indecent, or degrading. Obscenity has been defined as having a tendency to deprave or corrupt; as appealing to prurient interest; or as being offensive to prevailing moral standards. Pornography has been defined as explicit depiction of sexual behavior intended to cause arousal. Censorship of these matters is sometimes limited to shielding younger age-groups, and it is sometimes claimed that this type of censorship should only be applied if there is no redeeming scientific, artistic, or political value to sexual materials. Since the 1980s, censorship has been justified by the argument that pornography is equivalent to rape.

Almost no one believes in absolute freedom of expression. Libel, slander, and defamation are prohibited by nearly every legal code. These prohibitions are not usually considered to be censorship, but rather a part of tort law.

It is widely accepted that prior restraint is more effective at preventing expression than postpublication censorship. The requirement to submit items for approval may intimidate someone into not submitting something that might actually be approved or that might not attract negative attention if it were published. Postpublication punishment is rarely fully effective: the censors might miss a few items entirely, and when books or recordings that have already been published are destroyed, a few copies can often be saved surreptitiously.

Blasphemy, Heresy, and Atheism

Socrates (c. 470399 b.c.e.) was put to death in ancient Greece for introducing new gods, among other charges. Later, the main religions introduced doctrines of blasphemy and heresy as justifications for censorship. For the Jews blasphemy meant insult to God and was closely related to idolatry. The Christians expanded the meaning to include insult to Christ, and they tended to confuse blasphemy with heresy, or theological error. There is little evidence that blasphemy was a major concern in early Islam, but in 1989 a fatwa in Iran called for the death penalty against the author Salman Rushdie (1947) for blasphemy. The same year, Hindu fundamentalists issued a death threat against the historian M. M. Kalburgi for blasphemy.

In the widest meaning of heresy, the beliefs of every sect are heresies to every other sect, but it is usually the dominant orthodoxy that gets to define the heretical for practical purposes. Censorship of heresies can begin with prohibition of expression and develop through excommunication and punishment up to the death penalty. Atheism is a heresy to most religions and is sometimes considered worse than mere adherence to a mistaken religion. In ancient Greece, Anaxagoras (c. 500c. 428 b.c.e.) was prosecuted for denying the existence of the gods.

The Catholic Church developed the most sophisticated early censoring apparatus in the form of the Inquisitions and Index. In 1231 the Dominican and Franciscan orders were charged with inquiry into the spread of heresy, an undertaking later known as the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was instituted in 1478, and after various experiments with local inquisitions, a centralized Roman Inquisition was set up in 1542 to root out heresy. Lists of banned books were published in Paris (1544), Lucca (1545), Louvain (1546), and Venice (1549). In 1559 the first Index of Prohibited Books was issued at the Council of Trent, and a separate papal Congregation of the Index, set up in 1571, continued to issue an Index every few decades until it was abolished in 1966. Enforcement of such efforts at censorship depends in part on the climate of public opinion: in the eighteenth century, for example, sale of the Index was banned in Austria because people were buying it to use as a guide to reading.

Political Subversion

Because his pupils were closely allied to the oligarchy, it is arguable that the real reason for the persecution of Socrates was his political stance. Plato's Laws (c. 350 b.c.e.) makes the case for wide powers of censorship in order to prevent innovation: If no new songs and books are allowed and few people are allowed to travel, there will be no new ideas and no pressure for harmful political change.

In the Roman Empire, censorship of writers was often provoked by political satires of the emperors. In later times, political authorities have often censored expressions that they perceived to be threatening to their power and social stability, even claiming that any opposition to their persons or policies is treason.

The Netherlands and England

The first two countries to have substantial freedom from censorship were the Netherlands and England. At the time of the Dutch Revolt (15681648), the chaos of civil war, an extreme federalism consisting of numerous jurisdictions, and the growing economic importance of the commercial book market meant that the Dutch civil authorities were too exhausted to initiate effective censorship, that what was banned in one jurisdiction could be published in another, and that economic interests opposed censorship in the Netherlands. Protestant criticism of the Catholic Inquisition and Index also made it difficult to justify Protestant censorship. Similar reasons encouraged effective limits on censorship during the English Civil War and Commonwealth (16421660).

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulated the case for censorship in his Leviathan (1651). A philosophical nominalist, Hobbes believed very much in the importance of words and even claimed that the English Civil War was caused by too much reading of ancient republican authors. Therefore, he argued, the prince should have control over all forms of expression, a position frequently emulated by political authorities elsewhere. But even Hobbes did not articulate a full case for censorship with no exceptions. He warned princes against wasting valuable power trying to control people's minds when unnecessary.

The first major articulation of opposition to censorship was John Milton's (16081674) Areopagitica of 1644. He associated licensing with the infamous Inquisition of the Catholic Church and argued that knowledge of errors helps confirm the truth. Also among his arguments were that books cannot be suppressed without great harm to learning, and most people do not learn their evil ways from books. The censors are not infallible, he said, and the attempt to regulate all forms of expression would be both exhausting and futile. Furthermore, he said, criticism of magistrates helps keep them informed. As usual, there were limits to Milton's tolerance: he approved of suppression of Catholics and the impious as threats to society. In the same period, Henry Robinson argued in Liberty of Conscience (1644) for liberty of the press on the ground that it was good for business.

The Dutch writer Benedictus de Spinoza (16321677) wrote provocative historical criticism of the Bible in his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), which also called for the freedom of every person to think what he wanted and to say what he thought. Spinoza's posthumously published Ethics (1677) argued for materialism, which was widely interpreted as atheism, and also asserted that part of the definition of a free man is one who can say what he thinks. Even though he wrote in Latin to avoid attention from anybody but the most educated, Spinoza's work was widely banned, and his followers were persecuted and censored throughout the following century.

Charles Blount (16541693) published A Just Vindication of Learning in 1679, and in Miracles, No Violation of the Laws of Nature (1683), he offered the first translation of part of Spinoza's work into English. His Reasons Humbly Offered for the Liberty of Unlicens'd Printing (1693) retailed Milton's reasoning and may have influenced Parliament's decision not to renew the Licensing Act in 1695. Like Milton, the English philosopher John Locke (16321704) opposed toleration of atheists and Catholics, and he also wrote several memoranda in the 1690s against the renewal of the Licensing Act. "I know not why a man should not have liberty to print what ever he would speake, and to be answerable for the one just as he is for the other if he transgresses the law in either," he wrote. When the Licensing Act expired in 1695 without renewal, England had de facto press freedom.

The deist John Toland (16701722) was responsible for the widespread distribution of Milton's Areopagitica in his 1698 edition of Milton's complete works, and he attacked censorship in several later publications. Other English deists from Anthony Collins to Matthew Tindal also defended freedom of expression. Both Spinoza and the deists are examples of radical philosophers in opposition to censorship.

James Mill (17731836) and his son John Stuart Mill (18061873) updated many of the arguments against censorship that had circulated in English, French, and German before them. James Mill argued that true statements about individuals should never be censored and that only direct obstruction of government operations should be censored, not general objections to policy. John Stuart Mill insisted that we do not really know anything unless we have considered the alternatives to it and that there is some truth in every opinion.

From Bayle to Constant

In the francophone world, the Huguenot refugee Pierre Bayle (16471706) penned the first general justification of the publication of obscenity. His "An Explanation Concerning Obscenities" (1702) argued that outright recommendation of lewdness and debauchery should be punished, but anything less than that should be left to the people to judge for themselves. The works of great authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio are protected by a "right" of the republic of letters, he argued, and even the Bible contains accounts of lewdness. Finally, he said that historians can report obscene things as mere facts of history, and no one is forced to read them. Bayle also wrote against censorship of atheists.

In 1747 Elie Luzac (17231796) published the atheistic Man a Machine by J. O. de La Mettrie, which resulted in much scandal. He was forced to turn over most copies for burning. Luzac then wrote his Essay on Freedom of Expression (1749) in order to defend freedom of the press. He relied on the tradition of natural law and claimed that the expression of ideas can never be harmful to society: false ideas will be refuted, and even true ideas will not be fully convincing unless we have seen the false alternatives. Luzac also pointed out that prohibited books will circulate underground anyway. He was no social or political radical, and his work demonstrates that conservatives can oppose censorship.

When her work was attacked in the press, Germaine de Staël (17661817) wrote in favor of censorship. Her intellectual companion, Benjamin Constant (17671830), countered with the case against censorship in many writings, including Principles of Government Applicable to All Representative Governments (1815). He agreed that writers who preach murder, theft, and pillage should be punished, but he argued that most pamphlets are harmless.

From Schmidt to Bahrdt

In the German-speaking world, substantial freedom of the press emerged from the multiple jurisdictions in the region, but authors were still imprisoned for their publications. Johann Lorenz Schmidt's (17021749) rationalist translation of the Bible in 1735 was outlawed in 1737, and he was imprisoned but escaped. The introduction to his German translation (1741) of Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation included a 130-page prefatory essay on freedom of the press, which may have been the first extended critique of censorship in German. Schmidt also translated Spinoza's Ethics into German in 1744.

Joseph II (17411790) relaxed press controls in the Habsburg Empire, and Frederick II of Prussia (17121786) generally limited censorship to political matters, not attacks on religion. In the decades of ferment after about 1770, many German writers called for press freedom. Christoph Martin Wieland's periodical German Mercury called press freedom the palladium of humanity in 1784; August Ludwig von Schlözer's Letters to Eichstädt in Vindication of Publicity (1785) rejected a bishop's censorship; and Johannes Kern's Letters on Freedom of Thought, Belief, Speech, and the Press (1786) based such freedoms on the social nature of mankind. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) elevated press freedom into the transcendental principle of public law.

Carl Friedrich Bahrdt's On Freedom of the Press and Its Limits (1787) consolidated much of the foregoing German material into an extended critique of censorship. He labeled freedom of the press a human right and argued that people only really believe truths they have found for ourselves. He opposed suppression of atheism and claimed that all human progress depends on mutual communication. Bahrdt was willing to condone censorship of state secrets and private matters and spelled out what later became known as the public figure doctrine. His satire of the Prussian king Frederick William II, The Edict of Religion (1788), landed him in prison for more than a year.

Pushkin and Solzhenitsyn

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, two Russian writers penned brilliant critiques of censorship. Aleksandr Pushkin's (17991837) long poems "Epistle to the Censor" (1822) and "Second Epistle to the Censor" (1824) could not be published in his lifetime. They described censors as gloomy, "meddling eunuchs." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's (1918) "Letter to the Fourth Writers Congress" (1967) called censorship a survival from the Middle Ages and complained about the power of ignorant censors over literature.

Legal Declarations

In 1767 Sweden became the first country in the world to declare official freedom of the press, although a number of countries already had de facto freedom from censorship by then. However, Sweden's law specifically excepted matters of religion, one of the most common matters censored. In 1770 Denmark became the first to end censorship of all subjects. The decree was the work of Prime Minister Johann Friedrich Struensee (17371772), whose publications had been censored in Hamburg a decade before. He was overthrown and executed in 1772, but prior restraint of the press was not reimposed.

The fledgling United States was the site of several declarations of freedom of the press. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) asserted that freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of freedom itself, and declarations and constitutions in Pennsylvania (1776), Delaware (1776), North Carolina (1776), Vermont (1777), South Carolina (1778), and other states contained similar provisions. These provisions were precedents for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (1791), which holds that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." How these words would be interpreted, of course, would have a great effect on censorship in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was highly in favor of freedom of the press until he became president, when he prosecuted newspapers that criticized his policies.

Article 11 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 provided that "Every citizen may freely speak, write, and print, subject to accountability for abuse of this freedom."

Many European constitutions of the nineteenth century abolished censorship. Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media."

Sites of Censorship

Public libraries, museums, and schools are common sites of efforts to censor. The financing of libraries and museums by the public is alleged to confer a different standard than the open market, and protection of children from harmful materials is the usual justification for censorship of schoolbooks.

The development of each new medium of communication has brought with it efforts to censor that medium. Internet censorship is the latest in that line, with authorities around the world trying more or less effectively to limit access to certain Web sites and information.

Another late-twentieth-century phenomenon is the spread of "hate speech" codes on academic campuses. Intended to protect the vulnerable against speech that is alleged to express hate, the codes are open to wide-ranging interpretation and amount to imposition of judgments by whomever controls the censoring apparatus. Wherever anyone alleges that the expressions of others are insulting, offensive, or degrading, presumably those others could assert that the former's allegations are insulting, offensive, or degrading to them.

China has been a particularly active site for censorship and protests against it since the 1990s, but few observers from other countries can indulge in complacency. Derek Jones's Censorship (2001) details numerous cases of censorship of writers, directors, and artists on every continent and in almost every country in the twentieth century.

Censorship is not always an unmitigated bane for writers, artists, and publishers. One advantage is that it draws attention to works and causes. Authors have actively sought book burnings for the publicity value, and some books that have been taken off prohibited lists have seen their sales drop. Artistic careers have been made from the martyr value of censorship.

See also Arts ; Democracy ; Liberty ; Power .



Bahrdt, Carl Friedrich. On Freedom of the Press and Its Limits. In Early French and German Defenses of Freedom of the Press, edited by John Christian Laursen and Johan van der Zande. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003. Originally published in 1787.

Bayle, Pierre. "An Explanation Concerning Obscenities." In Bayle: Political Writings, edited by Sally L. Jenkinson. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Locke, John. "Appendix: Documents Relating to the Termination of the Licensing Act, 1695." In The Correspondence of John Locke, edited by E. S. De Beer. Vol. 8. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Luzac, Elie. Essay on Freedom of Expression. In Early French and German Defenses of Freedom of the Press, edited by John Christian Laursen and Johan van der Zande. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003. Originally published in 1749.

Milton, John. Areopagitica. In Areopagitica, and Other Political Writings of John Milton, edited by John Alvis. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999. Originally published in 1644.

Spinoza, Benedictus de [Baruch]. Theological-Political Treatise. Translated by Samuel Shirley. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. Originally published in 1670.


Coetzee, J. M. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Foerstel, Herbert N. Free Expression and Censorship in America: An Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.

Goldstein, Robert Justin, ed. The War for the Public Mind: Political Censorship in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.

Harrison, Nicholas. Circles of Censorship: Censorship and its Metaphors in French History, Literature, and Theory. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Index on Censorship (spring 1972). Quarterly magazine.

Israel, Jonathan. "The Intellectual Debate about Toleration in the Dutch Republic." In The Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic, edited by C. Berkvens-Stevelinck, J. Israel, and G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Jones, Derek, ed. Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. 4 vols. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

Spalding, Paul. Seize the Book, Jail the Author: Johann Lorenz Schmidt and Censorship in Eighteenth-Century Germany. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1998.

John Christian Laursen

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Censorship informally began in Russia when the regime acquired the realm's first printing press about 1560, a century after the invention of movable type. From then until the late 1600s successive tsars confined the use of that press, and the few more imported, to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Peter I (r. 16821725) expanded his government's monopoly to include secular publishing when, in 1702, he founded Russia's first newspaper The St. Petersburg Bulletin to promote himself and his programs. In 1720, having added the Senate and Academy of Sciences as official publishers, he required the ecclesiastical college to approve in advance every book printed in Russia, a censorship role that he passed the next year to the newlycreated Holy Synod. Synod authority over secular publishing ended in 1750 when Empress Elizabeth (r. 17411762) gave the Academy of Sciences the right to censor its publications, as she did Moscow University at its founding in 1755.

When Catherine II (r. 17621796) finally made private ownership and use of printing presses legal in 1783, her decree governing "free publishing" banned published words against "the laws of God and the state" or of a "clearly-seditious" nature. The police would henceforth supervise "free" presses and serve as preliminary censors. Alarmed by the French Revolution, Catherine ended her reign by closing private presses and by opening new censorship offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Still, Catherine's reign marked a stage in widening limits on the publishing of periodicals and books in Russia.

Sharing Catherine II's early belief in private publishing, Alexander I (r. 18011825) reinstated private presses, along with a preliminary censorship system. He set its rules in 1804 in Russia's first, brief censorship statute, a major reform designed to make the exercise of state power more predictable and rational. Napoleon's invasion in 1812, however, caused Alexander I to tighten censorship and to embrace the intense religiosity that spread during the war. Because the tsar resumed peacetime rule as a religious mystic, his choice to head his new Ministry of Spiritual Affairs and Education in 1817 was the president of the Russian Bible Society, A. N. Golitsyn, a zealot who used his role as chief censor to promote his religious views and to disseminate Bibles. Repeated complaints from high officials of the Russian Orthodox Church persuaded the Emperor to dismiss Golitsyn in 1824, the year before Alexander I died.

At the very outset of his reign, Nicholas I (r. 18251855) had to put down the Decembrist revolt led by gentry liberals. Blaming alien Western beliefs for discontent, the new tsar resolved to permeate society with Russian ideals and to prove, through paternalistic rule and controlled publishing that autocracy itself was inherently right for Russia.

Nicholas I in June 1826 issued his secular censorship law of June 1826 as a means to "direct public opinion into agreeing with present political circumstances and the views of the government." No less than 230 articles (five times the forty-six in the 1804 law) detailed procedures and made the author, not the censor, responsible should a duly censored text prove unacceptable once published (reversing the 1804 law).

Bowing to criticism among his officials, Nicholas named a new drafting committee and signed a substantially more liberal, but still sweeping, law of April 1828 to govern all works of "Literature, Science, and Art" (under it, responsibility again fell on the approving censor). A Foreign Censorship Committee had to publish monthly a list of the foreign works it had banned. Issued at the same time was a new ecclesiastical censorship statute that confirmed the Holy Synod's rightthrough censors chosen from ecclesiastical academiesto ban any book, work of art, ceremony, musical composition, or performance contrary to precepts of the Orthodox Church.

Nicholas also made censors of his new political police, the Third Section. To counter clandestine printing of illegal works and lax censorship of legal ones, he secretly ordered his special police to look for and report anything "inclined to the spread of atheism or which reflects in the artist or writer violations of the obligations of loyal subjects." One year after the French and Belgian Revolutions of 1830, Nicholas I put down the Polish rebellion. Building on popular support, the tsar in 1833 prescribed a system of ideasso-called "Official Nationality"to guide his subjects and his officials, including censors.

With respect to the state's granting licenses for private periodicals, the tsar himself approved or rejected applications, with the result that the mere forty-two private periodicals that circulated in 1825 had, by 1841, modestly increased to sixty. (Small readerships also forced a number of licensed periodicals to close for lack of profits.) As for books, limited statistics that begin with 1837 show that secular censors in that year approved more titles (838) than in 1845 (804) and 1846 (810), such numbers being minuscule compared to book production in Europe.

Although limits on publishing under Nicholas I from 1825 to 1855 were the most invasive in Imperial history, brilliant writers such as Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Leo Tolstoy won censors' approval under Nicholas I.

Assuming power in the last stages of the humiliating Crimean War, Alexander II (r. 18551881) blamed that debacle on Russia's backwardness and the archaic enserfment of 40 million peasants. To promote their liberation, in 1857 he lifted the de facto ban on publishing proposals for liberation.

On the heels of decreeing Emancipation in February 1861, Alexander II committed to reform of censorship and thirteen months later in March, 1862, ended preliminary censorship for all scientific, academic, and official publications. Then followed, five months after the 1864 judicial reform, the decree of April 6, 1865 to give "relief and convenience to the national press." Included as transitional for uncensored publications was a system of warnings that could lead to suspensions and closures for any showing a "dangerous orientation." Freed from censorshipbut only in St. Petersburg and Moscowwere all periodicals, translated books of 320 pages or more, and original books of 160 pages or more. (Short books were not freed, given their greater potential to do harm.) A big change was the statute's subjecting to judicial prosecution anyone responsible for criminal content in a freed publication.

In December 1866, the State Council declared that full freedom to publish would "take shape under the influence of a series of judicial decisions." During the next decade, as mounting terrorism made the tsar wary of public opinion, the government all but abandoned press-related trials. New measures against the press included profit-cutting limits on street sales and commercial advertisements. Whereas officials used the warning system from 1865 through 1869 to suspend merely ten freed periodicals, they suspended twenty-seven from 1875 through 1879. On the other hand, the number of active journals rose from twelve in 1865 to twenty in 1879; of newspapers, from forty-one in 1865 to sixty-two in 1879.

That trend reversed after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, because Alexander III (r. 18811894) repressed publishing. As one means, he created a Supreme Commission on Press Affairs in 1882 to silence not just "dangerous" periodicals but also, through temporary banishment from journalism, their editors and publishers. The Commission imposed closure, its harshest penalty, seven times from 1881 to 1889a period when the overall number of journals and newspapers declined just over 22 and 11 percentage points, respectively.

Given the seeming containment of terrorism by 1890, an easing of restrictions let the number of journals and newspapers rise; and the total stood once more at the 1881 level when Nicholas II (r. 18941917) acceded to the throne. Ten years later, during the 1905 Revolution, civil disobedience in printing plants effectively ended state controls that included censorship. In October, following a government decree that no printing plant could operate if it bypassed press regulations, the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workmen's Deputies ordered members of the Printers' Union to refuse to work for plant owners who complied.

Not only did Nicholas II issue his Manifesto of October 17, 1905 to promise imminent freedom of expression and other reforms, but he also ordered his new prime minister, Sergei I. Witte, to draft legislation to effect such changes. New rules for periodicals resulted on November 24, 1905. In issuing them, the tsar claimed to have shifted wholly to judicial controls and thereby to have granted "one of the fundamental freedoms." Promised new rules on book publishing took effect on April 26, 1906, and they allowed most books simultaneously to reach the public and the governing Committee on Press Affairs. Excepted were works of fewer than seventeen pages (censors had to approve them at least two days before publication), and those from seventeen to eighty pages (censors had to screen them a week in advance). The new rules let officials close an indicted publication pending what could be protracted adjudication.

Book-related trials in the remainder of 1906 mounted to an all-time high of 223, with 175 convictions. Those persons found criminally responsible for circulating or attempting to circulate a work ruled illegal mainly suffered fines, not imprisonment; for the main aim of the government was judicially to identify criminal content and to keep it from the public. Because the publishing industry became so large in the next decade, the tsarist regime found it almost impossible to limit printed opinion. By 1914, Russian citizens enjoyed freedom of expression very nearly equal to Western levels.

War with the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires in 1914 caused the tsar to impose military censorship on private publishing. Then followed the heightening domestic turmoil that culminated in the 1917 revolution, ending Imperial Russia and a relatively free press; for Lenin and his Bolsheviks, who seized power in November, so well knew the power of the printed word that they eliminated privately-controlled publishing companies. Vladimir Nabokov, Russian-American novelist and memoirist, provides a measure of the change in this summation: "Under the Tsars (despite the inept and barbarous character of their rule) a freedom-loving Russian had incomparably more possibility and means of expressing himself than at any time during Vladimir Lenin's and Josef Stalin's regime. He was protected by law. There were fearless and independent judges in Russia." Following Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin bested all rivals to emerge as the leader of the Party by the next year. Under him in 1936, the Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics made clear that publishing was to achieve the objectives of the socialist order as determined by the Communist Party. Harsh penalties awaited violators of laws against "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."

Enforcing limits on the printed wordand all cultural and artistic expressionwas maintained by means of a vast censorship apparatus known as Glavlit (the Chief Administration for the Protection of State Secrets) and only official institutions published newspapers (e.g., the Communist Party published Pravda ). Each publishing house answered to the State Committee for Publishing, Printing, and the Book Trade. Party authorities approved all editors and publishers of newspapers, magazines, and journals.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev began his eight-year dominance (19561964) as first secretary, and his effort to "de-Stalinize" the USSR brought his famous but short-lived "thaw" in censorship, especially with respect to literary and scholarly journals and the newspaper Izvestiia. Direct criticisms of the founding principles of the state or of system of government remained illegal, however, until 1986 when Mikhail S. Gorbachev, as general secretary, liberalized publishing practices under the term glasnost.

See also: dissident movement; glasnost; glavlit; gosizdat; intelligentsia; journalism; newspapers


Balmuth, Daniel. (1979). Censorship in Russia, 18651905. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Choldin, Marianna Tax, and Friedberg, Maurice, eds. (1989). The Red Pencil: Artists, Scholars and Censors in the USSR, tr. Maurice Friedberg and Barbara Dash. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Foote, I. P. (1994). "Counter-Censorship: Authors v. Censors in 19th Century Russia," Oxford Slavonic Papers 27 62-105.

Foote, I. P. (1994). "In the Belly of the Whale: Russian Writers and the Censorship in the Nineteenth Century," Slavonic and East European Review 98 (1990), 294298.

Papmehl, K. A. (1971). Freedom of Expression in Eighteenth Century Russia. The Hague, Netherlands: Nijhoff.

Ruud, Charles A. (1982). Fighting Words: Imperial Censorship and the Russian Press, 18041906. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Charles A. Ruud

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CENSORSHIP. Censorship began in the sixteenth century as the effort to prohibit religious ideas that were deemed heretical. From the beginning religious censorship was only possible when civil governments agreed that it was needed and provided the police authority for enforcement. In the following two centuries the state gradually took complete control, with little or no participation by clergymen. The effectiveness of censorship waxed and waned according to the perceived threat of alleged heretical, seditious, or immoral books as well as local circumstances. Censorship was strongest during the sixteenth century when Catholic and Protestant states sought to enforce religious uniformity, and weakest during the antireligious and politically liberal Enlightenment era of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, censorship of books, speech, and theater never completely disappeared because almost all state and church authorities felt that it was a legitimate and necessary means of protecting the populace from destructive ideas.


Little censorship existed before the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. Civil governments did not permit overt political criticism within the state, but they could do little about denunciations from beyond their borders. Because there was widespread agreement about the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, little censorship of religious and philosophical ideas existed.

The outbreak of the Protestant Reformation stimulated the beginning of religious censorship. Since Protestants promulgated their views through the printing press, and Catholics replied via the same medium, it was inevitable that both sides would try to control the press. But they waited until all hope of reconciliation ended in the middle of the sixteenth century before establishing censorship machinery. Then both sides developed similar policies.

Press censorship needed three components to be effective. First, an individual or a group had to determine which books, authors, and ideas were dangerousa commission of experts had to prepare a list of objectionable previously published books. Second, prepublication censorship was needed to ensure that new books propagating heretical, seditious, or immoral ideas would not be published. Governments had to establish committees of readers, composed of clergymen and civil officials, to review manuscripts before issuing permissions to print. Prepublication censorship would become the most widespread and effective kind of censorship. Third, the civil authority used its police powers to keep banned books from entering the state and, if possible, to remove them from bookstores and libraries. This part of censorship was never very effective.

The papacy fulfilled the first requirement by promulgating a series of Indexes of Prohibited Books, the most important of which were the Tridentine Index of 1564, so called because the Council of Trent authorized it, and its successor, the Clementine Index of 1596, promulgated by Pope Clement VIII. Additional indexes followed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at widely scattered intervals. Indexes listed authors and titles that could not be printed, read, or held, plus rules to guide those carrying out prepublication censorship and expurgation (elimination of objectionable passages in books otherwise acceptable). Catholic state and church authorities cooperated relatively effectively in censorship actions despite numerous disagreements and jurisdictional conflicts. For example, France never accepted the papal indexes but still banned Protestant books and ideas.

Protestant censorship followed the same paths except that no supranational Protestant church existed to direct and coordinate censorship. Since Protestant religious leaders invested the state with substantial authority over the church, the state assumed the leading role in censorship. Each Protestant state had to decide which books to ban and how to censor. Protestant states banned the publication, importation, and ownership of Catholic works, and sometimes the works of other Protestants. They also condemned books considered immoral and critical of the government. Although Protestant censorship has been little studied, it is likely that England and the Calvinist canton of Geneva had the most effective Protestant censorship in the sixteenth century.

Both Catholic and Protestant churches and states regulated what was preached in the pulpit and taught in universities. Prepublication censors sometimes dictated that scholars accept unwelcome changes in their works. Authors exercised some degree of self-censorship. A few scholars in both Catholic and Protestant worlds lost university positions, or suffered worse, because of their religious views. Political censorship also intensified in the late sixteenth century as governments attempted to stem a flood of vitriolic anonymous political pamphlets criticizing rulers and supporting rebellion, especially in France.


Although censorship began as a result of the religious division of Europe, civil governments quickly took complete control of censorship of books and theater. France is a good example. Beginning in the 1530s the monarchy issued a series of decrees that sought to ban Protestant literature. By the early seventeenth century a multiplicity of censors existed. Hence, in 1672 the monarchy established a college of censors, a group of scholars appointed to read manuscripts intended for publication and to grant the publisher the right to print the book, called a privilège. By the eighteenth century the number of French censors ranged from 150 to 200. The college exercised prepublication censorship and awarded exclusive publication rights to one publisher, thus protecting him from piracy by others.

English censorship of printed works began when Henry VIII (ruled 15091547) sought to protect the national church from other doctrines and his monarchy from attacks. Succeeding monarchs used censorship to enforce different religious establishments. Edward VI (ruled 15471553) allowed Protestant works, while Mary Tudor (ruled 15531558) banned them. Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603) passed numerous laws censoring the press and the theater to ensure that they respected her version of the English Church, did not publish Catholic views, and did not criticize the monarchy. In 1557 the crown created the Stationers' Company to issue licenses to print. The requirement that every book had to be licensed helped control the press. English monarchs continued a policy of state censorship over the next two centuries, although the purpose of censorship increasingly became that of shielding the monarchy from any criticism. Nevertheless, the shifting policies of the crown toward the national church, Puritanism, and Catholicism produced considerable variation from regime to regime in the seventeenth century, resulting in less effective censorship. Publishers of obscene, seditious, and blasphemous matter simply published without permission. So in 1695 England and Wales ended pre-publication censorship of written materials. The practice of locating and destroying books and prosecuting publishers had always been difficult, and that also waned, but censorship of the stage remained.

Every other large and small political unit had similar censorship systems, sometimes including representatives of the local church. But the local nature of censorship, limited to the boundaries of the state or city, was its weakness. Authors and printers wishing to publish political or religious criticism only needed to go to the next state to publish their works. Then the international commercial network of the book trade, including book fairs at Frankfurt and elsewhere, distributed the books throughout Europe. Finally, newspapers in the late seventeenth century created a new publication that was difficult to censor. Because newspapers were local and ephemeral, any censorship had to be quick and local. The censorship machinery of the sixteenth century was organized to censor learned works of religion, philosophy, and politics and could not adapt easily to newspapers, plus broadsides and other ephemeral matter, which were printed overnight on cheap paper, often without the names of author and printer, and were quickly distributed.


The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, especially in the years from 1750 to 1789, significantly weakened but did not eliminate censorship. Many Enlightenment philosophes deplored it, especially religious censorship, partly because they wrote many antireligious works. Rulers such as Frederick the Great of Prussia (ruled 17401786), Empress Maria Theresa (ruled 17401780) and Joseph II (Holy Roman emperor, 17651790; king of Austria, 17801790), Empress Catherine II of Russia (ruled 17621796), and King Charles III of Spain (ruled 17591788), who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, permitted more religious and literary freedom of expression. However, when writers began to publish works criticizing absolutist government and demanding expanded political rights for citizens, the rulers again tightened censorship. But they did not, and could not, return censorship to its earlier state.

In France, Enlightenment pressures seriously weakened the privilège system, as censors permitted the publication of ideas that had previously been banned. Numerous publishers in smaller states just beyond the borders of France published many works without privilèges, then sent them into France. The loosening of censorship permitted an avalanche of political pamphlets critical of the monarchy and the church, which helped bring on the French Revolution.

See also Enlightenment ; Index of Prohibited Books ; Journalism, Newspapers, and Newssheets ; Printing and Publishing ; Reformation, Protestant .


Primary Source

Index des livres interdits. Edited by J. M. DeBujanda et al. 10 vols. Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Geneva, Switzerland, 19851996. Texts and history of the drafting and promulgation of all sixteenth-century indexes of prohibited books.

Secondary Sources

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. Press Censorship in Elizabethan England. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Eisenhardt, Ulrich. Die kaiserliche Aufsicht über Buchdruck, Buchhandel, und Presse im Heiligen Römischen Reich Deutscher Nation (14961806). Karlsruhe, 1970. Censorship in the Holy Roman Empire.

Grendler, Paul F. The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 15401605. Princeton, 1977. Book censorship in the major Italian publishing center.

Jones, Derek, ed. Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. 4 vols. London and Chicago, 2001. Fundamental; see articles on censorship in different countries, Enlightenment, and other topics.

Santschi, Catherine. La censure à Genève au XVIIe siècle. Geneva, 1978.

Paul F. Grendler

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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).

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Censorship or prior restraintis the halting of a message by the government before the message is uttered. In the United States it has been called the most serious, least tolerable infringement of free speech because it halts speech before it can reach the marketplace of ideas (Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 1976 ). That is, the speech is not subject to discussion, debate, or rebuttal because it is stifled before such opportunities can be pursued. The word censorship has been applied to a wide variety of activitiesincluding newspapers deciding not to publish controversial cartoons, department stores refusing to sell certain magazines, or private organizations firing newsletter editors because of the articles they published. None of these examples constitute censorship, however, because they do not involve government action.

Some governments defend control over expression on the grounds that full debate, particularly of governmental actions, is risky, in that it can undermine the government or be detrimental to national security. Even governments that adhere to doctrines prohibiting prior restraint, however, recognize that not all speech is allowed in all circumstances. Certain kinds of speech, such as that which might harm national security, cause a violent breach of the peace, or tempt a person into illegal conduct, can be restrained by the government. In the United States, recognition of the right to impose censorship in exceptional situations was established in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota, and has been reaffirmed in subsequent cases. For example, justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have noted that words that are likely to cause direct, immediate and irreparable harm to the country may be censored (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971).

Governments that guarantee expressive rights without prior restraint do so generally on the basis that robust, open debateeven when expression is obnoxious or controversialis the better avenue for decision-making.

Some confusion over the reach of the prior restraint doctrine has emerged because of governmental control over broadcasting, particularly in the United States and Canada. Broadcasting is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, and by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission in Canada. Neither agency has direct control over the content of broadcasting, but each provides a mechanism through which broadcasters make their messages available to listeners and viewers through a system of licensing. Such governmental regulation in both the United States and Canada has come to be known as the trusteeship model. The model is based on the rationale that the airwaves constitute a natural resource and, as such, belong to the citizenry. Because broadcastings electronic spectrum is limited, there must be, therefore, some mechanism for picking and choosing among potential broadcasters. Broadcasters, then, are acting as trustees for the public in their use of the airwaves. Both Canadas Broadcasting Act of 1991 and the United States Telecommunications Act of 1996, which amended the Communications Act of 1934, stipulate that individual broadcasters maintain control over the content of their broadcasts, but also prohibit certain kinds of communication, such as indecent or obscene speech.

SEE ALSO Bill of Rights, U.S.; Civil Liberties; Freedom; Journalism; Liberty; McCarthyism; Media; Oppositionality, Schooling; Repression; Repressive Tolerance; Taboos; Tolerance, Political


Andre, Judith. 1992. Censorship: Some Distinctions. In Philosophical Issues in Journalism, ed. Elliot D. Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smolla, Rodney A. 1992. Free Speech in an Open Society. New York: Knopf.

Sunstein, Cass R. 1993. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. New York: Free Press.

W. Wat Hopkins

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censorship. The evolution of censorship has been a series of largely ineffective attempts by the authorities to suppress opinions of which they disapproved. Though they won many temporary victories, over time they were defeated by the growing liberalization of opinion, the difficulty of enforcing controls, and the proliferation of new vehicles of expression—pamphlets, plays, newspapers, film, radio, television, and computers. Before the invention of printing, arrangements for licensing were scarcely needed, though many authors, like Roger Bacon and John Wyclif, were subsequently taken to task for expressing heretical opinions. In 1529 Henry VIII issued a proclamation deploring the ‘pestiferous, cursed and seditious errors’ of Martin Luther, prohibiting the sale of books against the catholic religion, and mentioning by name several of Tyndale's works. By 1538 it was declared that all books of Scripture needed a licence from the Privy Council before publication. In 1557 the Stationers' Company was given the exclusive right of printing. Elizabeth repeated the licensing arrangements in 1559 and in 1586 printing was restricted to London and the two universities. These regulations did not prevent the production of broadsheets and pamphlets, particularly of a puritan bent. Licensing regulations were continued under Charles I, Cromwell, and at the Restoration. The decision in 1695 not to renew the Licensing Act freed authors from pre-publication inspection, but they were still liable to prosecution afterwards. In 1719 John Matthews, a Jacobite writer, was hanged for challenging the Hanoverian succession. Newspapers could be attacked by general warrants, which authorized the arrest of all concerned with the production or distribution of offending literature. Not until the Wilkes case in the 1760s were general warrants declared illegal.

Meanwhile, government had also moved against stage plays. As early as the 1570s the master of the revels had been given the task of licensing plays, but regulation was fitful. Walpole, provoked by satirical performances by Gay and Fielding, sponsored a statute in 1737 giving the lord chamberlain power to license theatres and plays. The later 18th cent. saw some relaxation. Another consequence of the Wilkes affair was that, in 1771, Parliament abandoned its efforts to prevent the publication of its debates in the newspapers. During the prosecution of William Woodfall in 1770, the jury insisted on its right to decide whether the passage complained of was libel (and not merely to declare the fact of publication), and this important extension of the right to comment was given statutory authority in Fox's Libel Act of 1792.

The current position is extremely complex and changes rapidly, partly because of the number of outlets now available. The lord chamberlain's power to license stage plays was removed in 1968. The Victorian Act of 1857 against obscene publications, under which James Joyce's Ulysses had been seized in 1923, was modified by an Act of 1959, which allowed a defence if artistic or literary merit could be proved. The first and most celebrated test of the new legislation was in 1960, when Lady Chatterley's Lover was cleared for publication after a parade of distinguished witnesses had testified to its deep moral integrity. Films are categorized under a British Board of Film Censors' code, set up by the industry itself. The home secretary has powers to intervene in BBC radio and television programmes, and the Independent Broadcasting Authority monitors commercial radio and television, though its interventions are infequent and gentle. To strike an appropriate balance on censorship is far from easy. Milton's Areopagitica (1644) was a noble statement of the right ‘to know, to utter, and to argue freely’, but it does not seem likely that he had in mind the tabloid press or video nasties.

J. A. Cannon

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"censorship." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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The term censorship in everyday language connotes ideas of blame and repression of faults. This is how it appears in Freud in Studies on Hysteria : "we are very often astonished," he writes, "to realize in what a mutilated state all the ideas and scenes emerged which we extracted from the patient by procedure of pressing. Precisely the essential elements of the picture were missing [...] I will give one or two examples of the way in which a censoring of this kind operates . . ." (1895b, p. 281-282). He then shows that what is censored is what appears to the patient to be blameworthy, shameful, and inadmissible. In a letter to Wilhelm Fleiss (December 22, 1897, in 1950a) he compares this psychic work to the censorship that the czarist regime imposed on Russian newspapers at the time: "Words, sentences and whole paragraphs are blacked out, with the result that the remainder is unintelligible" (1950a, p. 240).

Although the term appears quite frequently in writings from this first period, its status remains uncertain. Freud seems to be describing the deliberate suppression by patients, in their communication with the doctor, of what they do not wish to reveal to him, as well as the mechanism and effects of unconscious repression (1896b). A second meaning appears when he evokes the censorship which, in dream-work, results in a manifest text being presented as a riddle (Interpretation of Dreams, 1900a).

The metapsychological texts of 1915 elaborate on the distinctions outlined in chapter seven of the Interpretation of Dreams. Censorship is in fact defined as that which opposes the return of that which is repressed, at the two successive levels in the passage from the unconscious to the preconscious (the "antechamber") and on to the conscious (the "drawing-room") (1915e).

Censorship is thus clearly distinguished from repression: whereas repression rejects a representation and/or an affect into the unconscious, censorship is what prevents it from re-emerging. Freud nevertheless confuses this distinction later when he writes, for example: "We know the self-observing agency as the ego-censor, the conscience; it is this that exercises the dream-censorship during the night, from which the repressions of inadmissible wishful impulses proceed" (1916-17a, p. 429). With the introduction of the structural theory Freud made a new distinction, with the ego becoming the agent of the censorship under the superegothe merciless supervisor (1923b).

Although the notion of censorship continues to be fairly widely used in psychoanalysis to describe resistance to the treatment, it has scarcely received any further elaboration and its global nature may cause it to appear to be somewhat outmoded.

Roger Perron

See also: Censoring the lover in her; Dream; Dream interpretation; Ego; Fantasy; Fantasy (reverie); Fundamental rule; Hysteria; Jokes; Latent; Nightmare; Preconscious, the; Repression; Reverie; Secondary revision; Superego; Wish/yearning.


Freud, Sigmund. (1895b). On the grounds for detaching a particular syndrome from neurasthenia under the description "anxiety neurosis." SE, 3: 85-115.

. (1896b). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.

. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

. (1916-1917a). Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Parts I & II. SE, 15-16.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

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100. Censorship

  1. blue laws restrict personal action to improve community morality. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 87]
  2. Boston arbiter of Puritanical taste as reflected in phrase banned in Boston. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
  3. Bowdler, Thomas (17541825) expurgated Shakespeare and Gibbon for family editions. [Br. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 164]
  4. Comstock, Anthony (18441915) in comstockery, immortalized advocate of blue-nosed censorship. [Am. Hist.: Espy, 135]
  5. Fahrenheit 451 describes a future America in which books are prohibited and burned. [Am. Lit.: Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 in Weiss, 289]
  6. Hays, Will (18791954) clean-minded arbiter of 1930s Holly-wood tastes. [Am. Cinema: Griffith, 182]
  7. imprimatur license given by Roman Catholic Church to publish a book. [Christian Hist.: Misc.]
  8. Index librorum prohibitorum list of forbidden books compiled by Roman Catholic Church. [Christian Hist.: NCE, 1323]
  9. nihil obstat Roman Catholic Churchs inscription in books denoting no objection to literary content. [Christian Hist.: Misc.]
  10. Tropic of Cancer novel noted for its sexual frankness and use of obscenity, long banned in the U.S. [Am. Lit.: Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer ]
  11. Ulysses Joyce novel long banned in U.S. for its sexual frankness. [Irish Lit.: Benét, 1037]
  12. Unigenitus papal bull condemning Quesnels Jansenist book (1713). [Christian Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1115]

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censorship System whereby a government-appointed body or official claims the right to protect the public interest by influencing the release of any item of mass communication. Censorship usually falls into four broad categories – politics, religion, pornography or violence. Material may be censored before dissemination or may be prevented or seized by the authorities. Censorship raises questions about the freedom of speech, and advanced communications technology (such as the Internet) have made policing more problematic.

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"censorship." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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