Censorship, Press and Artistic

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CENSORSHIP, PRESS AND ARTISTIC. Threats posed to power by free expression have prompted various forms of censorship throughout American history. Censorship is a consistent feature of social discourse, yet continued resistance to it is a testament to the American democratic ideal, which recognizes danger in systematic restraints upon expression and information access. Censorship is understood as a natural function of power—political, legal, economic, physical, etcetera—whereby those who wield power seek to define the limits of what ought to be expressed.

Censorship in Early America

Legal regulation of speech and press typified censorship in the American colonies. Strict laws penalized political dissent on the charge of "seditious libel." Printers needed government-issued licenses to lawfully operate their presses. Benjamin Franklin's early career took a turn, for instance, when his employer and brother, a Boston Newspaper publisher, was jailed and lost his printing license for publishing criticism of the provincial government. British libertarian thought, especially Cato's Letters, popularized freedom of speech and the press as democratic ideals. Still, censorship thrived in the Revolutionary era, when British loyalists were tarred and feathered, for example, and freedom fighter Alexander McDougall led a New York Sons of Liberty mob out to smash Tory presses.

The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, provided a great legal counterbalance to censorship, although historians suggest it was intended more to empower states to punish libel than to guarantee freedom of expression. Then dominated by the Federalist Party, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, prohibiting "false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the government. After regaining a majority, congressional Republicans repudiated the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1802. Liberal, even coarse, speech and publication went largely unchecked by federal government for twenty-five years, although private citizens often practiced vigilante censor-ship by attacking alleged libelers.

Opposition to slavery revived government censorship in 1830, as Southern states passed laws restricting a free press that was said to be encouraging slave rebellion. Abolitionists in the North and South were censored by so called vigilance committees. They included the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, an Illinois Newspaper editor killed by a mob in 1837, and Lexington, Kentucky, Newspaper publisher Cassius M. Clay, whose press was dismantled and shipped away by a mob. Postal censorship also emerged when Southern states began to withhold abolitionist mail.

Military leaders and citizens of the North practiced "field censorship" during the Civil War (1861–1865) in response to publication of Union battle plans and strategy in Newspapers. President Abraham Lincoln was a reluctant censor, closing Newspapers and jailing "copperhead" editors who sympathized with the South, and giving credence to the notion that war necessitates compromises of free expression.

Widespread fraud and corruption inspired moral reflection in the Reconstruction era, when the U.S. Post Office dubiously assumed powers to categorize and withhold delivery of "obscene" mail. Postal censorship, which encountered early legal resistance, was based on an act of Congress in 1865, and the 1873 Comstock Law, named for New York anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. The U.S. attorney general then formally allowed Post Office officials censorship powers in 1890, forbidding delivery of any mail having to do with sex. Postal censors employed the "Hicklin test," whereby entire works were deemed "obscene" on the basis of isolated passages and words.

Censorship in the Early Twentieth Century

Federal censorship peaked during the early twentieth century, given the proliferation of "obscene" literature, political radicalism, and issues surrounding World War I (1914–1918). The U.S. Post Office added economic censorship to its methods by denying less expensive second-class postal rates to publications it found objectionable. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs prevented the import of books by literary artists charged as "obscene," such as Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence. The rise of labor unions, socialism, and other ideological threats to government, business interests, and powerful citizens stimulated further suppression of dissent. After President William McKinley's 1901 assassination by alleged anarchist Leon Czolgosz, President Theodore Roosevelt urged Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1903, whereby persons were denied entry to the United States or deported for espousing revolutionary views. Controversy surrounding American involvement in World War I brought the Espionage Act of 1917, restricting speech and the press, and extending denial of second-class postal rates to objectionable political publications. Vigilante censorship thrived, as war effort critics were harmed, humiliated, and lynched by "patriotic" mobs. The success of the Russian Revolution also encouraged restraints upon free expression during this period.

Resistance to censorship continued, however, supported by the Supreme Court, politicians, and articulate citizens. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. effectively loosened speech controls under the "clear and present danger" test, and the 1925 Gitlow v. New York ruling used the Fourteenth Amendment to wrest federal powers back from the states regarding restraints upon free expression. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in 1920, and First Amendment champion Theodore Schroeder notably fought censorship of literature involving sex and radical politics. Meanwhile, the new motion picture industry adopted a self-regulatory posture regarding objectionable movie content. The "Hicklin test" of obscenity suffered a major defeat in 1934 as a federal court ruled in U.S. v. One Book Entitled Ulysses (by James Joyce) that an entire work must be judged to determine obscenity, rather than isolated words and passages. Institutional censorship was resisted as well by the likes of Free Speech in the United States author Zechariah Chafee, New Mexico Senator Bronson Cutting, who effectively opposed Customs censorship, and Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Governmental restraint on broadcast media appeared in 1934, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established to regulate radio. Reminiscent of press controls in the colonial period, the FCC gained licensing authority over the radio (and later television) broadcast spectrum. The FCC's charge to ensure that broadcasters operate in the public interest is understood as a kind of censorship. FCC regulation was challenged and justified in the Supreme Court through 1942 and 1969 cases citing that the number of would-be broadcasters exceeded that of available frequencies.

Censorship efforts increased at the onset of World War II (1939–1945), yet with diminishing effects. Responding to threats of fascism and communism, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act in 1940, criminalizing advocacy of violent government overthrow. Legal statistics reveal few prosecutions under this act, however. Then in 1946, the Supreme Court undermined postal censor-ship, prohibiting Postmaster General Robert E. Hannegan from denying second-class postal rates to Esquire magazine.

Charges of economic censorship also emerged with a trend toward consolidation of Newspaper and magazine businesses. Activists asserted that press monopolies owned and operated by a shrinking number of moguls resulted in News troublesomely biased toward the most powerful economic and political interests. This argument was reinforced later in the century and into the new millennium.

Censorship in the Late Twentieth Century and After

Amid escalating fears of communism in the Cold War era, Congress passed the 1950 Internal Security Act (Mc-Carran Act), requiring Communist Party members to register with the U.S. attorney general. That was despite a veto by President Harry Truman, who called it "the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798." Encouraged by the McCarran Act, Senator Joseph McCarthy chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations in the 1950s, and harassed public figures on the basis of their past and present political views. Prosecutions for "obscenity" increased in the 1950s as libraries censored books by John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, and William Faulkner. The 1957 Supreme Court ruling in Roth v. U.S. ended obscenity protection under the First Amendment. Yet the Roth Act liberalized the definition of the term, saying: "the test of obscenity is whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." As a result, American readers gained free access to formerly banned works such as D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and John Cleland's Fanny Hill, or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Meanwhile, Cold War bureaucrats and government officials were increasingly being accused of hiding corruption, inefficiency, and unsafe practices behind a veil of sanctioned secrecy.

The turbulent 1960s brought more vigilante censor-ship, especially by Southern opponents of the civil rights movement; yet free expression protection and information access increased. The Warren Court, named for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, loosened libel laws, and in 1965 rendered the Roth Act unconstitutional. Then in 1966, spurred by California Representative John Moss, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This was a resounding victory for the "people's right to know" advocates, such as Ralph Nader. The FOIA created provisions and procedures allowing any member of the public to obtain the records of federal government agencies. The FOIA was used to expose government waste, fraud, unsafe environmental practices, dangerous consumer products, and unethical behavior by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency. Supreme Court decisions beginning in the late 1960s further negated national obscenity statutes, but supported local governments' rights to set decency standards and to censor indecent material.

Television and movie censorship operated efficiently, as visual media were acknowledged to have profound psychological impact, especially on young and impressionable minds. The Motion Picture Producers Association censored itself in 1968 by adopting its G, PG, R, and X rating system. Television was highly regulated by the FCC, and increasingly by advertising money driving the medium. While seeking to avoid association of their products with objectionable programming, and by providing essential financial support to networks and stations serving their interests, advertisers directly and indirectly determined television content. Advertisers were in turn subject to Federal Trade Commission censorship, as cigarette and hard liquor ads, for example, were banned from television.

The 1971 Pentagon Papers affair revealed government secrecy abuses during the Vietnam War, and justification for the FOIA. Appeals to prevent publication of the classified Pentagon Papers were rejected by high courts, and the burden came upon government to prove that classified information is essential to military, domestic, or diplomatic security. The FOIA was amended in 1974 with the Privacy Act, curtailing government's legal ability to compile information about individuals, and granting individuals rights to retrieve official records pertaining to them.

Censorship issues in the 1980s included hate speech, flag burning, pornography, and popular music. Religious and parent organizations alarmed by increasingly violent, sexual, and otherwise objectionable music lyrics prompted Senate hearings in 1985. The Recording Industry of America responded by voluntarily placing warning labels where appropriate, which read: "Parental Advisory—Explicit Lyrics." Feminists unsuccessfully tried to ban pornography as injurious to women. President George H. W. Bush and Congress passed a ban on flag desecration, but the Supreme Court soon struck it down as violating the right to free and symbolic political speech. Bigoted expression about minorities, homosexuals, and other groups, especially on college campuses, was subject to censorship and freedom advocacy into the early 1990s, as were sex education and AIDS education in the public schools.

The explosive growth of the Internet and World Wide Web in the mid-1990s gave individuals unprecedented powers and freedom to publish personal views and images, objectionable or not, to the world from the safety of home computers. Predictably, this development brought new censorship measures. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act (CDA), providing broad governmental censorship powers, especially regarding "indecent" material readily available to minors. The CDA was rejected as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU (1997). Subsequent censorship measures were struck down as well, preserving the Internet as potentially the most democratic communication medium in the United States and the rest of the world.

Censorship in the new millennium centers on familiar issues such as obscenity, national security, and political radicalism. The Internet and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States presented new and complex constitutional challenges. Censorship and resistance to it continued, however. Third-party candidate Ralph Nader was not allowed to participate in nationally broadcast 2000 presidential debates. Globalization of the economy and politics inhibit free expression as well. Dissident intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky argued that media conglomeration and market and political pressures, among other factors, result in propaganda rather than accurate New s, while self-censorship is practiced by journalists, so-called experts, politicians, and others relied upon to provide the sort of information needed to preserve a democratic society.


Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Levy, Leonard W., ed. Freedom of the Press from Zenger to Jefferson. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1966.

Liston, Robert A. The Right to Know: Censorship in America. New York: F. Watts, 1973.

Nelson, Harold L., ed. Freedom of the Press from Hamilton to the Warren Court. Indianapolis: Bobb Merrill, 1967.

Post, Robert C., ed. Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1998.

American Civil Liberties Union. Home Page at http://www.aclu.org

The Nader Page. Home Page at http://www.nader.org

Ronald S.Rasmus

See alsoFirst Amendment ; Freedom of Information Act .

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