Intellecutal Freedom and Censorship

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A climate of intellectual freedom is one where any individual may express any belief or opinion regardless of the viewpoint or belief of any other individual, organization, or governmental entity. These expressions range from private communications to speeches, essays, plays, or websites.

Censorship may broadly be defined as any action that works against a climate of intellectual freedom. Censorship affects both written and oral communication. Its span can encompass not only books but also newspapers, magazines, movies, plays, television, radio, speeches, recorded music, e-mail, government documents, and information communicated electronically. Censorship is both the process and the practice of excluding material that is deemed by someone to be objectionable. In theory, any person or organization may, for what they consider appropriate political, social, economic, social, or sexual reasons, set themselves up in the role of censor. Individuals and organizations ferret out that which they consider immoral, profane, objectionable, or offensive and try to impose their will on society by trying to prevent others from having access to the ideas. Censorship is the most powerful nonmilitary tool that is available to governments.

In every society in every age—from ancient Rome to modern America—the climate of intellectual freedom has been constantly threatened by acts of censorship. Examples of censorship in the United States range from banning the inclusion of certain books in library collections to enacting legislation (such as the Communications Decency Act) that infringes on First Amendment rights. The history of humankind's struggle for intellectual freedom reveals much about the conflict between tolerance and intolerance.

Censorship in History

Censorship has existed almost since the beginning of time, and its history is filled with individual authors and publishers who were intent on expressing ideas that others found to be offensive, indecent, or controversial. As early as the fifth century B. C. E., Greek and Roman orators and writers expressed principles of individual liberties. The playwright Euripides wrote, "This is true liberty when free-born men, having to advise the public, may speak free." The Greeks in ancient times did not, however, allow free expression of ideas that went against state religion, and in 399 B. C. E., Socrates was sentenced to death (to be carried out by his drinking of poison hemlock) after having been found guilty of degrading public morals. Socrates, known for his democratic teachings, argued his own defense, which outlined the importance of freedom of expression and is still extensively quoted in modern court cases.

Rome appointed its first censors in 443 B. C. E. The job of the Roman censor was not only to record demographic information about Rome's citizens but to assess moral behavior. Those who performed noble needs were honored. Those who violated the accepted rules of conduct lost status and privileges, including citizenship.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century C. E., the Roman Catholic Church controlled freedom of expression in the Western world for the next one thousand years. In the Middle Ages, religious and political censors protected the Church and state from both written and verbal attacks. The Church suppressed views with which it did not agree, and people were branded as heretics when they expressed ideas or opinions that went against Church doctrine. The Church silenced heretics through exile, torture, or death.

The tradition of individual liberties can be traced by to 1215 and the guarantees included in Britain's Magna Carta. In spite of the ideals expressed in that important document, the world's earliest censorship statute came from English Parliament in 1275.

The world changed in 1459 when Johannes Gutenberg began to work with movable type. By 1477, England had its first printing press. For the next two hundred years, from the early 1500s until 1694, licensing played a major role in publishing in England. Each publisher was required to get a formal license from the government before publishing works. If material was objectionable, no license was granted. (This was a most powerful example of what is called a priori censorship.) Unlike political censorship and church censorship, censorship for obscenity is a relatively recent development. Its roots can be traced to the seventeenth century and the advent of literacy among the masses. The term "obscenity" comes from the Latin ob (ideas) and caenum (towards dearth of filth).

Censorship of the press continued during the Reformation, until censorship by licensing ended in 1694. John Milton began arguing for the abolishment of licensing for printing about fifty years before Parliament finally acted. In his Areopagitica (1644), Milton argues for abolishment of printing licenses. Freedom of expression was very short lived, however. Shortly after 1694, Parliament enacted sedition laws that made it a crime to publish material that expressed hatred of or contempt for the government or the king.

Regardless of the laws and restrictions, people have always found ways to express their ideas and opinions. Since Gutenberg's time, the secret, underground printing of pamphlets has been common throughout Europe.

Censorship in the United States

People think of the United States as the freest country in the world in terms of expression, but during the Colonial period, printing in America was strictly regulated by the government in England. Boston was the site of the first book burning—of Thomas Pynchon's The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650)—performed by the public executioner. Newspapers were commonly suppressed in terms of their information content.

When the states voted on the U.S. Constitution in 1789, there was a growing concern being expressed that the Constitution did not guarantee human rights. On December 15, 1791, the states ratified the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). The liberties granted with the Bill of Rights make citizens of the United States among the freest in the world. Americans often take those liberties for granted, but they did not happen by accident. The founding fathers carefully planned for the rights of nation's citizens.

Of the ten amendments ratified as part of the Bill of Rights, the most famous has always been the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances."

The First Amendment requires citizens to protect unpopular speech, minority opinion, and the right of a speaker even when they do not agree with the message being conveyed. In spite of the First Amendment, the human inclination to prevent speech has given America a long history of censorship, intolerance, and repression. In 1885, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was banned in Concord, Massachusetts. To this day that same novel continues to be one of the most challenged and banned books ever published.

Anthony Comstock, one of America's most famous self-appointed guardians of public morality, had a long and ardent career as a censor. A grocer by trade, Comstock, as a young man, founded and was active in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock was instrumental in getting legislation passed to make it illegal to send obscene literature though the mail. The Comstock Law and Comstock's work to outlaw obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy books and pamphlets set a moral tone in the United States that lasted until the 1950s. Dawn Sova (1998a) has remarked that "Comstock believed that erotic literature was a trap designed by Satan expressly to detour pure and decent young people from the path of righteousness to the road to depravity."

During the twentieth century, particularly during World War I and World War II, censorship was widely practiced and, in fact, accepted by the government and other bodies. In general, during periods of war and unrest, the government and the public are often inclined toward more, not less, control of information and toward suppression of information for security reasons. Following the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917, freedom of speech was more narrowly defined by the courts.

In 1947, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate and became a central figure in the Cold War era. In the early 1950s, McCarthy claimed that there were more than two hundred card-carrying communists in the U.S. State Department but refused to produce evidence of his charges or identify his informers. He used the media to make unfounded accusations and was instrumental in a Supreme Court decision that ruled that speakers could be punished for advocating the overthrow of government, even when it was unlikely that such an occurrence would occur.

The debate about obscene material in previous decades resulted in the 1957 Roth v. United States decision, in which the Supreme Court changed the definition of the term "obscenity" to mean works that had sexual content but "no redeeming social importance." Samuel Roth had been charged with sending obscene material through the mail. Found guilty at the lower court level, the Supreme Court upheld Roth's conviction. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. stated that obscenity did not enjoy the protection of the First Amendment because obscenity is "utterly without redeeming social importance."

In 1967, the U.S. Congress created the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The report of the commission and its recommendations were rejected by the Senate and by President Richard Nixon. Thus, the 1957 definition of obscenity stood until the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Miller v. California. Marvin Miller, like Roth, had been convicted for sending obscene publications though the mail.

In upholding the decision of the State of California, the Supreme Court's opinion created a new three part test for obscenity: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Censorship in the United States is not limited to the spoken or written word. Visual arts, including photography, and music lyrics have been the focus of censorship efforts, often by well-organized and well-funded community or national groups. The battles over Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and the "Sensations" exhibit (which featured works from the Saatchi Collection) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art are but two examples.

Censorship in U.S. schools began after World War II. Textbooks, library books, and material used in classrooms as part of the curriculum have all been the targets of well-meaning parents, community organizations, and even school boards that govern school districts. In 1975, the school board of the Island Trees Union School District ordered nine books removed from the school library. After a 1982 decision by the Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Pico, the books were returned. Justice William Brennan, in his opinion, stated, "local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion."

Even the power of the U.S. Supreme Court, though, seems insufficient to quell society's yearn to censor. The American Library Association's list of the ten most challenged books between 1990 and 1999 (out of the 5,600 challenges that were reported) includes many titles that Brennan's landmark words would seem to protect:

  1. Daddy's Roommate, by Michael Willhoite (96 attempts to ban)
  2. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz (92)
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (60)
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (53)
  5. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (48)
  6. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (45)
  7. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (45)
  8. Forever, by Judy Blume (40)
  9. Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman (36)
  10. The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger (32)

Censorship in the 1990s expanded its reach to an ongoing censorship battle over what is acceptable for adults and children to see on the Internet, particularly in public settings. Constitutionally protected sexually explicit material is widely available on every computer hooked to the Internet. Parents, legislators, the government, and industry have rushed to restrict access to what they classify as violence, hate speech, and unacceptably graphic sexual material in cyberspace.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a sweeping telecommunications reform bill—the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which included the Communications Decency Act (CDA). When this bill was passed and thereby made a law, it made it a criminal act to allow minors to see indecent material on the Internet. The CDA was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of organizations that included the American Library Association. In 1997 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the first case regarding the Internet to be brought before the Court. The Court struck down provisions of the CDA that regulated "indecent and patently offensive speech". While the CDA was intended to protect minors, the Court declared it unconstitutional because it would have reduced "the adult population (on the Internet) to reading only what is fit for children."

The Internet has become a battleground that sets the right to free speech against the interests of protecting minor children. The ongoing struggle to control what both children and adults read, view, and hear on the Internet will not be solved soon.

Censorship in Other Countries

Just as censorship has occurred from early history in the Western world, censorship has been prevalent in the history of many of the world's countries for centuries. Citizens in many countries still live in a culture of fear and secrecy, where information is suppressed and access is restricted. Without a commitment to freedom of expression, governments can and do act as they please in denying access to information. In 1948, the Commission on Human Rights completed its work under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissent. This living document has been adopted by nations throughout the world. Article 19, the section that deals with freedom of expression and opinion states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and import information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

These ideals are difficult to live up to even in countries where there are no formal censorship laws. The culture of many countries does not guarantee that freedom of expression will flourish, even in the emerging democracies. Therefore, censorship persists with both formal and informal mechanisms.

Information Freedom and Censorship (1991) reported on freedom of expression and censorship in seventy-seven of the world's countries at a time shortly after the liberation of Eastern Europe and the end of emergency rule in South Africa. In a majority of the countries covered by the report, individuals remained in jail or detention for expressing their opinions and works continued to be banned. At that time, twenty-seven countries operated under State of Emergency or Prevention of Terrorism legislation that allowed those governments to suspend arbitrarily the right to freedom of expression. In many countries, journalists continued to be tortured or killed, and the government retains control or ownership of the press/and or the Internet.

The international transfer of information via the Internet has made information more accessible to some and less accessible to others. Events such as ethnic and religious conflicts are reported around the globe almost instantaneously, and electronic information is not as easily suppressed. Via e-mail, individuals can report on world events, form their own opinions, and express them to others. Still the Internet is controlled or restricted in many parts of the world. In 1999, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a French-based organization of international journalists, named twenty countries that were enemies of the Internet and reported that forty-five countries restricted their citizens' access to the Internet. Most of these counties restricted access by forcing citizens to use state-run Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The twenty "enemies" protected the public from "subversive ideas" or used the rationale of national security. In some countries, no citizens were allowed access to the Internet. In other countries, users were forced to register with authorities. Some countries used blocking software, and still others used government-run or approved ISPs. The twenty countries that were selected in 1999 as enemies of the Internet included the Central Asian and Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the countries of Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam.

RFS (1999) also reported that "the Internet is a two-edged sword for authoritarian regimes. On the one hand, it enables any citizen to enjoy an unprecedented degree of freedom of speech and therefore constitutes a threat to the government. On the other hand, however, the Internet is a major factor in economic growth, due in particular to online trade and exchange of technical and scientific information, which prompts some of these governments to support its spread."

Each month RSF publishes a press freedom barometer. In November 1999, 2 journalists were killed, 19 were arrested, and 85 were in jail. An additional 42 had been threatened. Of the 188 member countries of the United Nations, 93 make it difficult or very difficult to be a journalist. This accounts for almost half of the world.

Modern Censorship

Censorship crosses all political and cultural boundaries but can often be classified into one of five categories: political, religious, economic, social, or sexual censorship. Who chooses to censor, why they do it, and the methods they employ vary depending on the country, the situation, the culture, and its history.

Any person or organization can set oneself up in the position of a censor. Generally, censorship comes from state, local, or federal governments, churches and religious institutions, religious zealots, and well-funded organizations across the political spectrum from right to left. Anyone can become a censor and work to restrict access to speech when they seek to control what materials are available to another person or another person's children.

Censorship can target print, electronic, or visual information. Common targets of censorship include materials with sexually explicit content (called "pornography" by some), violence (particularly in film, television, and video games), hate speech, profanity, information that threatens governments or criticizes government officials, and works that contradict or mock religious beliefs. Racist materials, sexist materials, religious materials, and materials that involve witchcraft and Satanism also make the list of things that some people want banned. In short, any material that someone, somewhere deems to be offensive, indecent, or obscene may be a target of the censor.

There are many forms of censorship. Some are obvious, some are subtle, and some are violent. Censorship methodologies include suppression; prohibition; formal book banning; pressure not to acquire works; proscription; removal; labeling to warn consumers about the content of movies, books, videos, television programs, and music lyrics; suspension of publication; and restriction of access to electronic materials (e.g., by filtering).

The use of legislation, lawsuits, licensing, registration requirements, filtering software, or codes of behavior may all constitute censorship. The same is true of the dismissal of employees who speak out against their employers' policies—particularly in the public arena. In authoritarian regimes that substantially restrict or eliminate most or all civil liberties, terror and violence are common ways of ensuring that access to information is restricted and that people are not free to speak or hold beliefs openly.

In the Western world, other methods of censorship include citizens removing materials from libraries and school curricula, Churches condemning publications, authors voluntarily rewriting their works, and governments requiring a formal license to print in advance of publication. Physical abuse, police interrogation, book burning, and bans on travel are more often employed as means of censorship in other parts of the world (though they have been employed in the United States as well). People, not just materials, can also be the targets of censorship. This could include writers and academics, defenders of human rights, those who work in the media, and political opponents.

Much of the censorship seen outside Europe and North America results from a desire to preserve traditional values and to stop what conservative civil and religious authorities view as the "invasion" of Western culture. Many people first seek to censor things because of what they believe to be a well-intentioned desire to protect children, or because of the desire to maintain political stability and security and to decrease influence from foreign governments. Censorship can also occur in an attempt to maintain moral standards and cultural norms, to maintain respect for religious teachings, to protect government and industry secrets, or to respond to community pressure. This motivation is not dissimilar to that which was present in Europe around the time of Galileo's conviction as a heretic. In fact, throughout history, whenever a society experiences a rapid influx of new ideas and beliefs, those who seek to avert change employ censorship as a primary tool.


The tension between intellectual freedom and censorship is as alive in the modern world as it was more than twenty centuries ago. Many censorship attempts, particularly in the United States, fail because information about the censorship attempt is shared and vigorous debate usually ensues.

While the zeal of the censor often brings fame, this fame is often not long lasting. The battle for public opinion often ends with people recognizing that censorship incidents are about control of others. Freedom from censorship is a precious national resource, often taken for granted until challenged. Censorship sometimes brings fortune, particularly when media attention promotes the sale of books that are targeted for removal. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne said it best: "To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it."

See also:Communications Decency Act of 1996; First Amendment and the Media; Gutenberg, Johannes; Internet and the World Wide Web; Pornography; Pornography, Legal Aspects of; Printing, History and Methods of; Ratings for Movies; Ratings for Television Programs; Ratings for Video Games, Software, and the Internet; Telecommunications Act of 1996.


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Ann K. Symons

Charles HARMON

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