views updated May 17 2018


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


views updated Jun 11 2018


Dissident historical views on Western colonialism were regularly censored, and historians and others holding such views were often persecuted. In the following entry, a representative sample of these dissident views is discussed. The examples are taken from a continuously updated worldwide database of the censorship of history covering views produced between 1945 and 2005. To demarcate this survey more precisely, it is worth noting that it is not on censorship of views prior to 1945; nor on Eastern colonialism; nor on precolonial history; nor on powers that annexed other territories; nor on minorities or majorities whose past is labeled (semi)colonial by some of their members; nor on independent states whose past is labeled (semi)colonial by opposition members or as subject to imperialist influences by the government; nor on independence as a result of partition instead of colonialism; nor on occupation during a war.

After a look at the evidence for archival destruction, cases of censorship of professional and popular history will be reviewed. Three groups of censors are considered: colonial powers, former colonial powers, and former colonies. Discussion of these groups is centered around three themes: colonialism in general, its start (the conquest and accompanying crimes), and its end (anticolonial resistance and nationalism).


Archives form the infrastructure of historical research. There is a long—by its very nature poorly documented—history of archival destruction by colonial powers. Although they fall outside the chronological scope of this entry, it is tempting to recall first two early examples from Mexico and Congo.

In the fifteenth century the Aztecs of Mexico destroyed documents not in line with their view of the past, which endorsed continuation of the revered Toltec civilization. One century later, Spanish conquistadores burned the pagan Aztec and Mayan archives.

In the mid-nineteenth century Portuguese colonists set fire to the archive of the kings of Congo, built up since the sixteenth century. When this territory (together with other regions) became the Congo Free State (1885–1908) and the private possession of the Belgian king, Leopold II (1835–1909), the possible transfer to Belgium of sovereignty over Congo was discussed twice, in 1895 and in 1906 to 1907. Leopold II gave detailed instructions to destroy or transfer to the royal palace the archives of the Congo. "Je leur donnerai mon Congo, mais ils n'ont pas le droit de savoir ce que j'y ai fait" ("I shall give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I have done there"), he said. It is estimated that probably half of the population died in Leopold's Congo. The surviving archives were examined by German forces occupying Belgium during World War I, but the archives were subsequently treated carelessly until the late 1940s.

Within the survey period of this entry, cases of colonial mismanagement of archives are documented for Africa and the Caribbean. In Kenya, many official records on the Mau Mau rebellion (1952–1956) were destroyed by the British before independence. When in 1962 Algeria became independent, the French government exported all the official documents they could to France, thus taking with them vital sources of Algerian history. In what was to become Zimbabwe, much material relating to African history and to the activities of Africans was removed from the files open to the public at the national archives after the emergence of the Rhodesia Front government in 1962, an act glossed over by recataloguing. From 1979 to 1980 the Rhodesian government destroyed documents produced by its security and intelligence services.

Switching to the Caribbean, a recent case was the postponement in late 2000 of the publication of an official history of Dutch decolonization policy in the Caribbean between 1940 and 2000, written by Gert Oostindie and Inge Klinkers. Quoting too abundantly from the post-1975 Dutch Council of Ministers minutes and other top-level documents, the authors had to delete certain data, particularly data concerning the personal policy views of politicians and civil servants, before the volumes could be published in mid-2001.

Evidence that former colonies destroyed colonial archives is sporadic. Under Equatorial Guinea's first president, Francisco Macías Nguema (1924–1979), for example, school textbooks of the colonial period and large parts of the national archive were condemned as "imperialist" and publicly burned.


Colonial powers did not welcome unfavorable interpretations of their rule, as the following examples about the British and Portuguese show.

In India, the British banned Marxist-inspired "economic-nationalist" interpretations of Indian history, such as pleas for economic independence based on historical arguments and criticism of "landlordism" and nineteenth-century deindustrialization, at schools and universities. The 1946 edition of W. C. Smith's Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis, published in London and describing the transformation of the traditional Muslim community into a modern society during the preceding seventy-five years, was not allowed into India because of its alleged communist approach, despite the fact that an earlier edition had been published in Lahore in 1943. A pirated version appeared without the author's consent in 1954, after Pakistan's independence, again in Lahore.

Interestingly, two of India's leaders wrote histories while staying in British prisons: Future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) wrote The Discovery of India, and future president Rajendra Prasad (1884–1963) authored India Divided. Both works were published in 1946. The latter book, arguing from an Indian nationalist viewpoint but emphasizing unity between the historical traditions and political ideals of Hindus and Muslims, went through three editions before India's partition in 1947. Before his Discovery, Nehru had also written a world history in prison.

In 1962 Portugal declared British historian Charles Boxer persona non grata for drawing attention to Portugal's record of control in its colonies in a series of lectures in the United States. Boxer denied the frequent assertion of Prime Minister António Salazar (1889–1970) that the Portuguese had always had good relations with black Africans and that the latter were themselves Portuguese; Boxer showed that most colonizers believed in white superiority and that race prejudice prevailed. In an earlier paper, he described seventeenth-century Portugal as a "disintegrating power." Portuguese historian Armando Cortesão suggested that Boxer return his (many) Portuguese honors. The Portuguese press labeled Boxer dishonest, and his books were no longer sold. His 1969 classic, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1925, was not translated into Portuguese until 1977. In 1954 British journalist and historian of Africa Basil Davidson experienced an episode similar to Boxer's.

Colonial conquests were very sensitive events, especially when accompanied by atrocities, as demonstrated by examples from the United States and Belgium. As a student, the future dissident and revisionist Philippine historian Renato Constantino was briefly arrested in 1939 and interrogated by the American colonial authorities at Fort Santiago in Manila because he had written an article exposing American atrocities perpetrated against the Filipino population during the "pacification campaign" of 1899 to 1902. Constantino was released after he declared that his source was The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, 1898–1925 (1926), a book published uncensored in New York by Moorfield Storey and Marcial Lichauco in 1926. This incident made Constantino determined to reexamine Philippine history.

In 1959 (a year before the independence of the Belgian Congo) the Belgian Royal Academy of Colonial Sciences refused twice to publish papers of its member, historian and missionary Edmond Boelaert, because they contained evidence of abuses committed in the early phases of Congo's colonization. The papers were eventually published long after Congo's independence—and the author's death—in 1988 and 1995 respectively.

Research into anticolonial resistance and nationalism had the power to demonstrate that the colonized possessed historical agency, and such research therefore demolished part of the ethnocentric legitimation upon which colonial power rested. In Australia, a dissertation by Allan Healy critically approaching the history of Australian colonial control over Papua New Guinea (which lasted until 1975) and presenting the case for more rapid political devolution of power was put under lock and key in the library of the Australian National University between 1959 and 1962. In the French Maghreb, a region in northwestern Africa, research in contemporary history was ignored for being too sensitive. In 1952 the sale of French historian Charles-André Julien's new book, North Africa on the March: Muslim Nationalism and French Sovereignty, was blocked by the colonial administration after it aroused controversy for its anticolonialist stance. Julien's first book, History of North Africa: From the Arab Conquest to 1830 (1931), which supported demands of North African nationalists for colonial reform, had already earned him the hostility of many French in the Maghreb.

In 1967 Terence Ranger, a British historian deported from Rhodesia in 1963, published Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896–97: A Study in African Resistance. It became a classic history of the Chimurenga revolt—the Shona name for the 1896 to 1897 uprisings of the Ndebele and Shona people against the imposition of British colonial rule—and inspired blacks to compare the revolt with their own uprising against the Rhodesian regime after its 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain. Ranger's book was banned until independence in 1980. Ironically, the Rhodesian army reportedly used it as a textbook in counterinsurgency.


After independence was granted to their colonies, Western countries remained sensitive to statements about their former colonial role. For example, Years of the Century, a 1979 Portuguese television series that included a personal view of the Estado Novo (New State; the Portuguese dictatorial regime from 1932 to 1974) by a left-wing historian, was canceled after complaints from the Catholic Church about the first episode. The film explicitly attacked the Catholic hierarchy's support of the Estado Novo repression of black nationalists.

The first stages of colonization proved to be problematic in Australia, Germany, and Belgium. In June 1992, in Mabo and Others v. State of Queensland, the Australian High Court recognized that the concept of terra nullius (Australia as "a land of no one" before European settlement began in 1788) was a fiction, thereby strengthening Aboriginal claims to ancestral lands. This "Mabo judgment" (after Aboriginal leader Eddie Mabo [1936–1992]), called historic, reversed a historical view of Australia's past in which the role of Aboriginals was downplayed. The ruling led to protracted debates—known as the "History Wars" and yet unfinished—about British colonialism in Australia and the fate of the Aboriginals.

In Germany, a journalist who in 1965 attacked the Koloniallegende (the emphasis on Germany's achievements in its pre-1918 colonies without mentioning the violence) on television received death threats. Another person living abroad had to cope with censorship threats by the German foreign office after pointing out parallels between the genocide of the native Herero in German South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) in 1904 and that of the Jews and the Poles in Europe during World War II.

For the Belgians, the crimes against humanity committed in the Congo Free State remained a sensitive subject until well into the 1980s. Beginning in 1975 diplomat Jules Marchal published several books in Dutch and French on those crimes under a pseudonym. For eight years he could not gain access to the archives of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In another case, retired Lieutenant-General Émile Janssens, chief of staff of the Force Publique (the army in the Belgian Congo) until 1960 and president of the patriotic committee Pro Belgica (established in 1980 to commemorate the 1830 foundation of Belgium) wrote a letter in 1986 to the minister of national education about historian and anthropologist Daniel Vangroenweghe. Janssens accused Vangroenweghe of libeling King Leopold II in his 1985 Dutch-language book Red Rubber: Leopold II and His Congo by writing about the crimes committed in the Congo Free State. Janssens also questioned Vangroenweghe's position as a secondaryschool history teacher. When members of parliament supporting Pro Belgica asked questions about the affair, the minister established a commission of school inspectors, which concluded that the charges were unfounded.

Janssens also wrote to the publisher who translated Vangroenweghe's book into French, as a result of which a publisher's note was printed in the 1986 French-language edition to warn readers of its controversial nature. Vangroenweghe was asked to sign a statement that he would take all responsibility in the eventuality of a lawsuit. Although the French-language edition sold out in a few months, it was not reprinted. Pro Belgica also published rebuttals of Vangroenweghe's "lies." In the course of the affair, Vangroenweghe was threatened in anonymous letters, and his public lectures on the subject were interrupted by former colonials and attended by the secret police.

The final stages of colonialism proved to be delicate subjects in the Netherlands and France. In the Netherlands, the 1984 publication of a volume in the official war history, Kingdom of the Netherlands in World War II, dealing with the Dutch East Indies and the later Indonesia, led to a protracted lawsuit. The suit was finally decided against the petitioners (representatives of part of the community of those who formerly lived in the East Indies, organized as the Committee for the Historical Rehabilitation of the Dutch East Indies) in April 1990. They had accused the author, historian Loe De Jong, of portraying too negatively the role of the colonial administration. They also objected to passages about war crimes committed by Dutch troops against Indonesian nationalists from 1945 to 1949, and they asked the state to commission "a less prejudiced historian" to rewrite the history of colonial relations.

The 1987 manuscript of De Jong's next volume, also about Dutch-Indonesian relations from 1945 to 1949, was leaked to the press by two military reviewers and evoked strong protests from veterans because it contained a forty-six-page section entitled "War Crimes." Some veterans demanded nonpublication of that part, sued De Jong for libel, or published denials of his claims. The defamation case, including the demand for nonpublication, was dismissed in 1988, chiefly because the controversial statements were made in a manuscript, not a published book. When the volume was finally published, the title of the provocative section was changed to "Excesses." A few years later Dutch war veterans sued novelist Graa Boomsma on similar charges; the case was dismissed.

In France, the violent Algerian independence struggle (1954–1962) proved traumatic. Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film The Battle of Algiers treated the theme and was banned. Shot on location in Algiers in 1965 with the assistance of the Algerian government, the film gave a sympathetic account of the Algerian fight and criticized the use of torture by colonial authorities. The French ban lasted five years; the film's eventual release was delayed because cinema managers were intimidated. The Battle of Algiers was also banned in Uruguay in 1968 because it was seen as indirectly condoning the Tupamaro guerrilla, a National Liberation Movement very active at the time.

A 1996 issue of the Algerian daily Liberté was seized by the French police because it included an article commemorating the anniversary of a pro-independence demonstration by Algerians in Paris on October 17, 1962. The demonstration had ended in a bloodbath. The article mentioned a death toll and the disappearance of as many as two hundred people instead of the official tally of three deaths and sixty-four injured. In 1998 Maurice Papon, the chief of the Paris police at the time, sued historian Jean-Luc Einaudi for libel because the latter had written in the newspaper Le Monde that the 1962 events constituted a "massacre perpetrated by the police on Papon's orders." In addition, Einaudi denounced the removal or destruction of several relevant archives. In 1999 the court ruled that the statement had been defamatory; damages were not awarded, however, because the court also ruled that Einaudi's method had been careful. Only in the same year did the French National Assembly officially acknowledge that France had fought a "war," rather than "an operation for keeping order," against Algerian nationalists from 1954 to 1962.


In former colonies, colonialism was widely condemned, with little reason for substantial differences of opinion. One example reveals, however, that the role of locals could be thorny. In 1977 the Indonesian Film Censorship Board banned Saija dan Adinda, a Dutch-Indonesian film directed by Fons Rademakers. The 1976 film, an adaptation of the nineteenth-century novel Max Havelaar, told the story of the corrupt and exploitative practices of the local gentry under Dutch colonial rule. The board declared that the ban was imposed because the film created the impression that colonialism was good and that the people were exploited by the local gentry rather than the Dutch.

If evidence for censorship of colonialism in general was understandably scarce, the reverse was true for its beginning and end. In some cases, episodes of colonial conquest were extremely difficult to interpret, as examples from Mexico and South Africa prove.

From 1950 to 1951 a Mexican scientific commission devoted thirty-seven sessions to verifying the authenticity of the bones of Cuauhtémoc (the last Aztec emperor and a national symbol of resistance to European imperialism), which had been "discovered" shortly before. When the commission found no proof of the bones' authenticity, and thus was unable to satisfy national pride, it was confronted with extreme hostility in the press. In 1975 a new commission came to the same conclusion as the 1951 group.

In the run-up to the 1992 quincentenary marking the arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in the Americas, an intense debate raged in Mexico about whether it was legitimate to describe this "discovery" as the start of an encounter between the Old and the New World. In South Africa, two books published in 1952 criticized the celebration of three hundred years of white settlement and looked at South Africa's history as a struggle between oppressors and oppressed. The books, Three Hundred Years: A History of South Africa by Mnguni (Hosea Jaffe) and The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest by Nosipho Majeke (Dora Taylor), had to appear under pseudonyms and were banned. Both books anticipated the work of radical historians in the 1970s.

The early stages of colonialism were sometimes problematic. In February 2005, a 6-meter (19.5-foot) statue of the Leopold II was reerected in Congo after it had been removed on the orders of President Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997) in 1967. It was taken down again just hours later, reportedly because several ministers opposed having a memorial to a man who had caused so much exploitation and death.

The last stages of colonialism, however, were by far the most sensitive in the former colonies.

Latin America. There are many examples in Latin America, where independence from Spain and Portugal came in the early nineteenth century for most colonies. In 1976, during the military dictatorship, Uruguayan historian Alfonso Fernández Cabrelli was arrested and held without trial. He was accused of "an attempt to subconsciously influence the reader of his book The Uruguayans" (Boletín informativo 1979, p. 6) by drawing parallels between Uruguay's hero of independence, General José Artigas (1764–1850), and the revolutionaries Camilo Torres (1929–1967) and Che Guevara (1928–1967). The book was called excessively critical of "the measures taken by the authorities to preserve the values of our nationality against the penetration of Marxism" (Boletín informativo 1979, p. 6).

In the 1980s the Colombian Academy of History directed comparable criticism to some authors of history textbooks. The author Rodolfo Ramón de Roux was accused of omitting or ridiculing the most important figures of the independence period and of overemphasizing contemporary history. His New History approach was labeled Marxist and unpatriotic. A similar approach used in a textbook by Silvia Duzzan and Salomón Kalmanovitz was equally condemned. An academy member declared in a newspaper that the textbook depicted Spaniards and Creoles unfavorably, thus inciting hatred against them. Despite the academy's attitude, the text-books continued to be used in schools.

Elsewhere, analogous cases were noted. In Peru, historian Heraclio Bonilla was criticized in the 1970s for his revisionist interpretation of the Peruvian independence movement. Bonilla's work was attacked for unpatriotically debunking the nation's traditional heroes and overemphasizing socioeconomic factors.

Under the Argentinean dictatorship (1976–1983) of General Jorge Videla and others a historical study, From Montoneros to Caudillos, was banned because its title contained the forbidden word Montonero (adopted by left-wing Peronists in memory of the irregular armies of gauchos who fought against Spanish troops during Argentina's independence wars of 1810 to 1816).

In 1983 in Mexico, the National Autonomous University of Mexico planned a production of Martyrdom of Morelos (1981), a play by Vicente Leñero. Leñero's portrayal of Mexican independence hero José María Morelos (1765–1815) as someone who under torture betrayed the names, strategies, and troop strengths of other rebel commanders caused a great stir, especially because President Miguel de la Madrid (b. 1934) had "adopted" Morelos as his spiritual mentor from the past. Some rehearsals were reportedly interrupted, a controversial actor playing the part of Morelos was replaced, and precautions against violent protests were taken on opening night.

In Cuba, finally, prominent independence leaders such as José Martí (1853–1895), Máximo Gómez (1836–1905), and Antonio Maceo (1845–1896) formed part of the pantheon inspiring and legitimizing the government of Fidel Castro (b. 1927) and were, as such, sensitive subjects.

Asia. In Asia, problems were comparable. In 1952 the Indian Ministry of Education appointed an editorial board to compile an official history of the Indian freedom movement, to be published in conjunction with the centenary celebration of the 1857 revolt of Indian soldiers (sepoys). In 1954 board director and historian Romesh Chandra Majumdar presented a draft of the first volume to the other editorial board members; after a delay he learned from the minister of education that some board members had criticized his draft as exaggerating the role of Bengal in the freedom movement.

Equally controversial was the starting date of the freedom movement in India, situated by Majumdar in 1870. Others preferred to designate the 1857 revolt itself as the beginning of the movement, or even the thirteenth century—implying that Muslims were foreigners in India, an assumption undermining the Congress Party's ideal of India as a secular democracy.

A third point of conflict was the nature of the 1857 revolt (was it a national war of independence or not?). Majumdar resigned and the editorial board was dissolved in 1955. The government entrusted the work to National Archives director Surendra Nath Sen, whose book Eighteen Fifty-Seven appeared in 1957. The same year Majumdar published his own findings as The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857.

In Indonesia, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote persuasive anticolonial novels. Imprisoned at Buru Island, Pramoedya was not allowed to write in the 1970s. In the evenings, he told his fellow inmates stories about the incipient nationalist movement in the early twentieth-century Dutch East Indies entirely from memory. When Pramoedya was finally allowed to write in 1975, the other inmates gave him paper and did his duties while he transformed the stories into a set of four historical novels.

When the quartet was published after Pramoedya's release in 1979 and proved immensely popular, each of the volumes was banned. Susandi, the head of the investigation team at the office of the Indonesian attorney general, claimed that the books represented a threat to security and order and that the author "had been able by means of historical data to smuggle in Marxist-Leninist teachings." The ban was also partially inspired by fear that analogies would be drawn between the abuses committed by the Dutch colonial power and those of the regime of President Suharto (b. 1921), who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998.


The son of a school headmaster, Ananta Toer Pramoedya was born February 6, 1925, in Blora, East Java, Indonesia. Imprisoned by each of Indonesia's three twentieth-century governments for alleged subversive political activities and writings, he is widely considered Indonesia's most estimable writer.

In his fictional works, Pramoedya has created insightful and forward-looking characters who challenge traditional political doctrines through thought and action. The complex political history of the Indonesian islands serves as the context for many of Pramoedya's works, which are also marked by his experiences during World War II.

After Japan's surrender at the end of World War II, the Dutch tried to regain the islands of the East Indies. However, Indonesian nationalist sentiment led several paramilitary rebel groups to engage the Dutch in a four-year struggle for control of the country. While serving as a soldier in this nationalist movement, Pramoedya was captured and jailed in 1947.

While serving in a Dutch forced labor camp, Pramoedya wrote The Fugitive, which was published several months after his release in 1949. The book, which earned him an Indonesian literary prize, marked Pramoedya's emergence as a politically influential author. In 1990, some forty years after it was originally published, The Fugitive became Pramoedya's first novel widely available to English-speaking audiences.

Once out of prison, Pramoedya developed several leftist affiliations, though he never became a communist. He served as a leading figure in Lekra, a socialist literary group, and visited Beijing in 1956, expressing support for that country's communist revolution. Among his significant publications of the period was a defense of Java's Chinese minority community. In 1965, after the failure of a coup aimed at overthrowing the by-then independent Indonesian government, Pramoedya was deemed an enemy of the state on account of his earlier leftist associations. The author's library, notes, and manuscripts were burned, and he was held without trial for fourteen years on the prison island of Buru in eastern Indonesia.

For the first seven years of his incarceration, Pramoedya was denied access to paper and pencil. Lacking these rudimentary tools of his trade, he composed stories in his head. Upon his release in 1979, Pramoedya turned those prison stories into a historical tetralogy, based loosely on the life of Tirto Adisoerjo, an early Indonesian nationalist.

The Indonesian government has suppressed Pramoedya's works, citing alleged Marxist-Leninist leanings and elements of class conflict that pose a potential threat to society. Some observers have viewed these bans as an attempt to quell liberalism and debate among Indonesians.

Pramoedya's work has been circulated in the form of "illegal" photocopies, at great personal risk to Indonesian readers, and has remained largely inaccessible to foreigners. In addition, journalists have often been denied permission to interview him and the Australian translator of the Buruquartet was expelled from Java. When asked to describe his feelings about his works being banned, Pramoedya told the Washington Post: "I consider it an honor…. To do creative work you must be prepared to pay, and this is one of the costs" (North, p. D5, April 1988).

Africa. In Africa also, independence struggles left their uncertain legacies. In Kenya, the interpretation of the independence movement, and especially of one part of it, the Mau Mau rebellion (1952–1956), was a predominant subject of debate among historians because the conclusions of the debate had direct implications for the legitimacy of the authoritarian leadership. Mau Mau was an uprising of members of the Gikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, against British colonial rule to obtain land and freedom. Writers with a Marxist-inspired interpretation of the rebellion risked persecution.

Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo, who wrote fiction on the Mau Mau, spent the last year (1978) of the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta (1891–1978) in prison because one of his recent plays had dealt with Kenyans who collaborated with the colonial administration by serving in the Home Guard during the Mau Mau rebellion. Ngugi's play also treated the struggle over land between a peasant farmer and a rich landowner. In the words of Eliud Njenga, the Kiambu district commissioner, "it promoted the class struggle." The play was "too provocative, would make some people bitter and was opening up old graves." After his release and much further harassment, Ngugi eventually went into exile until his temporary return to Kenya in 2004.

Another Kenyan victim, this time under the government (1978–2002) of President Daniel arap Moi (b. 1924), was Marxist historian Maina wa Kinyatti, known for his controversial work on Mau Mau. It cost him six years of imprisonment under severe duress (1982–1988), an eye disease, and exile afterwards.

At the other side of the interpretation spectrum, neoconservative historian William Ochieng, who viewed Mau Mau as an internecine struggle among the Gikuyu, stayed relatively aloof from criticism until a group of Mau Mau veterans in 1986 demanded that his writings be banned from the schools. The veterans also decided to commission the "correct" historiography of the Mau Mau rebellion. In an official reaction, President Moi declared that he could not allow history to be written in a way that might divide the Kenyans and that any history of the Mau Mau rebellion should provide a correct account of independence. As late as October 2001, dozens of members of the Kenyan nongovernmental group Release Political Prisoners were detained for several days on charges of holding an illegal meeting because they had commemorated Mau Mau day.

Elsewhere in Africa, books about left-wing leaders who were assassinated during or as a result of decolonization, like Ruben Um Nyobè (1913–1958) in Cameroon or Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961) in Congo, were confiscated and banned, partly because the books implicated their country's rulers. Such was the fate of Patrice Lumumba: The Fifty Last Days of His Life (1966), a book written under a pseudonym by Belgian scholars Jules Gérard-Libois and Jacques Brassinne, and Cameroon's National Problem (1985), edited by historian Achille Mbembe.

In Namibia, the crimes committed by the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), a black African nationalist liberation movement, before the 1990 independence caused controversy. In 1996 president and former SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma (b. 1929) attacked German Lutheran Church pastor Siegfried Groth, who for many years had actively supported SWAPO's antiapartheid struggle, in a television broadcast to the nation. The reason was Groth's Namibia—The Wall of Silence: The Dark Days of the Liberation Struggle, a 1995 book that included eyewitness accounts of the torture and disappearance of detainees in the SWAPO preindependence exile camps in Zambia and Angola. The detainees had been accused of internal dissent or of spying for South Africa. Although the book sold out quickly, some two thousand people called for its banning and for public burning at a rally celebrating the sixth anniversary of Namibia's independence.


From this survey, five conclusions can be drawn. First, popular history channels were watched as closely as academic history. Second, reasons for archival destruction, removal, and secrecy by colonial powers can be subsumed under three factors: political (legitimation of abusive power), military (erasure of traces of crimes and rebellions), and cultural (ethnocentric depreciation of the historical sources of subjected peoples).

Third, colonial powers censored historical works about colonial violence written by both national and "indigenous" scholars; those works were banned at home and in the colony. More surprisingly, colonial powers also attempted quite often to attack criticism by foreign scholars.

Fourth, for former colonial powers, precarious subjects that were liable to censorship or taboo status mainly related to wars in the earliest and last stages of colonialism. Unofficial interest groups were players as important as governments. Frequently, conflicts had to be decided in court. In the long run, violent conquest and violent decolonization came to be seen as adversely affecting the democratic legitimation of power and the construction of a national identity—in short, they came to be seen as sources of shame.

Finally, in former colonies, the last stage of colonialism was the most explosive period. Remarkably, censorship attempts were often not directed at representations of the role of the former colonial power, but at portrayals of former anticolonial resistance leaders. Left-wing explanations for this crucial period were seldom cherished. Historians had to portray the country's heroes of independence very carefully: praising them could powerfully suggest comparison with, and criticism of, present leadership, and blaming them could provoke retaliation by veterans and the establishment.

see also Anticolonialism; Lumumba, Patrice; Portugal's African Colonies.


Boletín informativo (Newsletter of Amnesty International) (February 1979): 6.

De Baets, Antoon. "Censorship and Historical Writing." In A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing, edited by D. R. Woolf, 149–150. New York and London: Garland, 1998.

De Baets, Antoon. "History: Rewriting History." In Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, edited by Derek Jones, 1062–1067. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

De Baets, Antoon. "History: School Curricula and Textbooks." In Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, edited by Derek Jones, 1067–1073. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

De Baets, Antoon. Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide, 1945–2000. London and Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

De Baets, Antoon. "Defamation Cases against Historians." History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 41 (2002): 346-366.

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

Simpson, J., and J. Bennett. The Disappeared: Voices from a Secret War. London: 1985.


views updated May 11 2018


This entry, concentrating on censorship of sexual content in the United States, initially defines censorship. It then explores different rationales for censorship and the various means and modes that it can take. In addition to addressing the censorship of pornography and obscene speech, it examines censorship of broadcast indecency in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other common censorship battles, including those involving self-censorship by private entities and businesses.


Censorship is the prohibition, suppression, and restriction of speech, be it the printed word or other forms of expression such as images, broadcasts, and Internet postings. It generally is found in two distinct modes in the United States—government censorship and private censorship. The former typically occurs when a government official or government entity either creates a law or seeks a court order, such as an injunction, that prohibits and bans the utterance and/or dissemination of speech on a particular topic, subject, or idea. Likely targets of censorship in the early twenty-first century are content such as military or security secrets, obscenity, broadcast indecency, and true threats of violence. The government, in brief, is the agent of the censorship—it plays the role of censor—and thus this form of censorship can also be called official censorship. People who violate censorship laws—laws that forbid the communication of certain messages and topics, such as federal statutes in the United States prohibiting the creation and dissemination of images of child pornography—and court orders face criminal penalties including fines, incarceration, and contempt.

Conversely, in private censorship—what might be called unofficial censorship—the censorship agent is not a government actor or government entity but is, instead, a private individual, a private business, or a corporation. For instance, private censorship takes place when a corporation or business acts as censor and decides not to sell or to rent a speech product such as a sexually explicit adult magazine such as Hustler, a violent video game such as Grand Theft Auto, or a profanity-laced rap CD by Eminem because the corporation or business objects to the content, subject matter, or message in the speech product. The individuals running a corporation or business that engages in such censorship may personally object to the messages in question or, from an economic and business standpoint, they may fear boycotts by consumers and religious groups if they sell the censored products. This may be thought of as a particular variety of private censorship called corporate censorship. Corporate censorship also occurs when a corporate-owned radio station refuses to play the songs of a certain musical group because the radio station's owners object to the group's political viewpoint or find the group's lyrics offensive. For instance, in 2003 many radio stations in the United States refused to play songs by the Dixie Chicks, a pop-country musical trio, after lead singer Natalie Maines made comments critical of President George W. Bush during a concert in England. In addition to corporate censorship, private censorship transpires when an individual who desires to speak nonetheless refrains from doing so voluntarily because of fear that his or her speech could lead to some form of punishment, retaliation, or retribution at the hands of others, including but not limited to the government. This is known as self-censorship; rather than risk possible reprisals for expressing a viewpoint or message, people play it safe, forgo speaking, and censor themselves. It thus is often said that a "chilling effect" on speech occurs when fear leads to self-censorship.

What unite both government censorship and private censorship are the notions of control over communication and the silencing of speech. In the case of government censorship, the control may come in the form of a prior restraint on speech—an order stopping speech before it can be released or sold to the public at large or to a specific segment of the public such as children. A court order restraining speech before it can be heard is a form of a judicial decree known as an injunction. In the United States, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stands as a bulwark against most forms of government censorship. It provides in relevant part that "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the word Congress to mean not simply the U.S. Congress, but any federal, state, or local government entity or official. The First Amendment thus creates an ethos and spirit of free expression that is dramatically and diametrically opposed to government censorship. Indeed, prior restraints on speech are presumptively unconstitutional and the government faces a heavy burden when attempting to justify them (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971). Private censorship, however, is immune from the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and press. Thus there is no constitutional protection against private censorship, and private businesses and corporations are free not to sell or rent those speech products to which they object.

Even the First Amendment does not completely prohibit government censorship. The U.S. Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the First Amendment, has long held that some forms of speech—obscenity, child pornography involving real children, fighting words, true threats of violence, and incitements to violence—fall outside the scope of First Amendment protection and thus can be suppressed and censored. In addition and as described later, the FCC engages in censorship of certain sexually explicit content on broadcast television that it deems to be indecent.

Therefore, despite the presence of the First Amendment protection of free speech and press, both government censorship and private censorship occur in the United States. The constitutional law scholar and professor Rodney A. Smolla (1992) calls censorship "a social instinct," observing that "governments in all places at all times have succumbed to the impulse to exert control over speech" (p. 4). Other scholars agree that "throughout history governments have sought to, and succeeded, in banning material that they consider injurious" (Green 1990, p. vii) and "studies in communications, anthropology, sociology, and economics support the claim that censorship is an enduring feature of human communities" (Jansen 1991, p. 181). It thus should come as no shock that "censorship has been a constantly recurring social phenomenon" (Garry 1993, p. xv) in the United States. In fact, only seven years after the First Amendment took effect in 1791 with its protection of freedom of speech, "the federalist party under President John Adams obtained passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which attempted to silence any criticism levied against it by Thomas Jefferson's emerging Republican-Democratic party" (Garry 1993, p. 19).

Given such historical tendencies and social instincts toward censorship, it is not surprising that there is a long history of censorship of sexual content in the United States. In 1821 Massachusetts successfully prosecuted Peter Holmes, publisher of a version of an erotic novel by the English novelist John Cleland called Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748–1749), because government authorities found it to be "lewd, wicked, scandalous, infamous, and obscene" (Heins 2001, p. 25). The book, describing "a young woman's successful rise from destitution to a middle-class life through a career in prostitution" (Lane 2000, p. 11), was censored because it would allegedly put lustful desires in the minds of both minors and adults. In 1842 Congress enacted the first federal statute that allowed the censorship of obscene material. Congress in 1865 passed another law prohibiting the use of the mail to convey obscene pictures and books because it was "concerned about the consumption of pornography in the [military] ranks during the Civil War" (Lane 2000, p. 15).

The first dramatic move toward the large-scale censorship of sexual content in the United States, however, came in 1873 with the passage of the so-called Comstock Law, named for Anthony Comstock, a crusader in New York State against indecent material. This act "made it a crime knowingly to send information and advertisements about obscene publications, contraception, or abortion through the mails" (de Grazia 1992, p. 4), and Comstock was made a special agent of the U.S. Post Office charged with enforcing it—something he did quite vigorously. Forty years after the act's passage, Comstock claimed to have "destroyed more than 160 tons of obscene literature and had convicted enough individuals to fill nearly 61 passenger cars with 60 seats each" (Lane 2000, p. 15). Comstock had great power, in part, because the act did not define terms such as obscene, lewd, and indecent, thus giving him wide latitude to subjectively enforce the obscenity censorship law as he saw fit. The postal service remains one the primary enforcers of obscenity laws in the early-twenty-first-century United States, with postal inspectors monitoring mails for obscene content under federal law (18 U.S. Code § 1461).

Censorship of sexual content continued in the twentieth century, and it was not until 1966 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally held that the book Fanny Hill was not obscene and thus could be legally distributed (A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Massachusetts). A major victory against censorship occurred in 1933 when a federal judge held that James Joyce's book Ulysses was not obscene (United States v. One Book Called "Ulysses"). But that decision did not stop efforts to censor speech that government authorities considered to be obscene. Between 1957 and 1977, the nation's high court heard arguments in nearly ninety different obscenity prosecutions. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, however, there were no federal obscenity prosecutions, as the Justice Department under Clinton focused instead on the proliferation of child pornography on the World Wide Web and congressional efforts turned to censoring nonobscene yet explicit sexual content on the web. The administration of President George W. Bush began a new federal crackdown on obscenity, launching two major prosecutions, one in 2003 and the other in 2006.


Rationales for censorship of expression often are based upon fears—realistic or imaginary—about the supposedly dangerous and deleterious effects that particular messages might have on the audience that receives them. For instance, those in power in government may want to censor messages of opposing political parties because they fear the opposition's messages will undermine their authority and control. Likewise, the government may want to censor messages with sexually explicit content because it fears that young children would be harmed or corrupted by viewing the content. For instance, a public high school—a government entity—may ban books with sexual content from its shelves or remove selected pages from them, clear acts of government censorship.

Private censorship also may be based on a fear rationale. For instance, a company may decide not to sell a particular rap CD because it fears consumer backlash in the form of boycotts and protests were it to carry the CD. Alternatively, the rationale for private censorship may not be based on fear but simply on the premise that the individual engaged in the censorship truly objects, based on personally held beliefs, to the content in question and thus decides not to sell or rent it.

Ultimately, censorship is about power and control of information. By preventing people from receiving certain information and knowledge, individuals and government entities acting as censors exert control over the information-deprived individuals. The maxim that "knowledge is power" goes double with censorship, as censorship is the suppression of knowledge with this suppression entrenching the power of those who control the flow of information. Government censorship of sexual content in books, magazines, and videos therefore is a means of power and control over sexual practices and sexual mores of the population, as censorship of this material both reduces what people know about sexual conduct and makes clear to them that some sexual practices are forbidden, scandalous, or taboo.


In the early-twenty-first-century United States, there are two primary and distinct rationales for censoring sexual content and, in particular, for censoring sexual content that is commonly thought of as pornography, such as that found in such magazines as Hustler, Taboo, and Barely Legal.

First, antipornography feminist legal scholars such as Catharine A. MacKinnon (1993) believe that such sexual content represents "the power of men over women, expressed through unequal sex, sanctioned both through and prior to state power" (p. 40). Under this view, the sexual content found in adult magazines, videos, and DVDs should be censored because it objectifies and exploits women and, in turn, conveys an ideology that sustains male power. In addition, this strand of antipornography feminism contends that censorship is necessary not only because pornography subordinates women to men but also because it changes how women feel about themselves. As the late feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin (2004) wrote, "the pornography industry has managed to legitimize pornographized sexuality and to make it the duty of every woman to perform sexually as a prostitute. Partly, the voyeurism of the pornography industry changes the way in which women are seen. This includes how we see ourselves" (p. 141). It is worth noting that not all feminists are in favor of censorship of sexually explicit pornography; in fact, there is a group in the United States called Feminists for Free Expression (FFE) that is decidedly anticensorship and believes that "while messages reflecting sexism pervade our culture in many forms, sexual and nonsexual, suppression of such material will neither reduce harm to women nor further women's goals" ("FFE Mission").

The second primary rationale for censoring sexual content is that the content undermines moral and religious values, while concomitantly corrupting children and harming social institutions such as the family and marriage between a man and a woman. This view is commonly associated with the conservative and religious right movement in the United States. Groups such as Citizens for Decent Literature, founded in the 1950s by Charles Keating, and the American Family Association, founded in 1977 and headed in the early twenty-first century by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, are examples of censorship advocates subscribing to this rationale.

Beyond these two primary rationales for censorship of sexually explicit content are arguments that pornography: (1) exploits the women who are used in making it; (2) is addictive and ruins the lives of those who consume it, along with the lives of their family members; and (3) desensitizes users and negatively changes their beliefs and behaviors about healthy sexual relationships. Both anti-porn feminists and antiporn conservatives may embrace these arguments, depending on the particular individual.

Very different rationales for censorship of sexual content are found when the individuals featured in the content are children. In particular, child pornography is censored in the United States—it is not protected by the First Amendment, and it is a violation of both federal and state laws to distribute it and to possess it—because the minors used in child pornography: (1) do not have the mental capacity to understand the ramifications of their participation in it and thus are not capable of giving informed consent to making it; (2) are both physically and emotionally harmed by participating in it; and (3) could be haunted later in their adult lives by the permanent record of their participation in child pornography if someone years or decades later discovers the magazine, video, or DVD in which they appeared. In addition, another rationale for censorship of child pornography is that its use by pedophiles whets their appetite to sexually molest and abuse children.

Finally, another rationale for censoring sexual content is political expediency. In particular, politicians may call for censorship of sexual content not because they really fear that it causes any harm to those who would view it or read it, but because such a pro-censorship stance against sexual content may win them support from voters and public interest groups such as Focus on the Family. Viewed in this light, support of censorship can be seen as little more than a cynical form of political pandering to the electorate.


The First Amendment does not protect obscene speech, and thus it may be censored by the federal government in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court created a three-part test in 1973 for determining when material is obscene (Miller v. California). That test, known as the Miller test after the name of the legal case in which it was created, asks the jury in an obscenity prosecution to determine whether the material in question: (1) appeals to a prurient interest in sex, when taken as a whole and as judged by contemporary community standards from the perspective of the average person; (2) is patently offensive, as defined by state law, in its display of sexual conduct; and (3) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Only if a jury finds that each of these three components is satisfied by the sexual content in question will it be deemed to be obscene. Once deemed obscene, the censorship and suppression of further distribution of the material is permissible. The rationale for censorship of obscenity, as reflected in the Miller test's use of terms such as prurient interest (defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as a morbid or shameful interest in sex) and patently offensive, is premised on the conservative argument described above that it harms morals and values.

Child pornography involving real minors—not computer-generated ones—also is not protected by the First Amendment, and thus it too may be censored by the government. Significantly, however, there is not a uniform or standard definition of child pornography, in contrast with the Miller test for obscenity. What courts have made clear is that the sexual content need not rise to the level of obscenity under Miller or be as graphic or explicit if children are depicted in it. For instance, an image depicting the lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of a minor constitutes child pornography under federal statutory law embodied in the United States Code even if the minor is not engaged in a sex act (18 U.S. Code § 2256).

A third category of sexual content that may be censored by the government in the United States is broadcast indecency. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that the FCC could censor the over-the-air broadcast, on both radio and television during certain periods of day, of sexual content that it deemed to be "indecent" even though the content does not rise to the level of obscene speech under Miller (Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation). In 2006 the FCC defined broadcast indecency as speech that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. This is a two-part test that first requires a determination of whether the speech in question depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs. If it does include such content, then it must be determined whether the depiction or description is patently offensive. In deciding if material is patently offensive, the FCC generally weighs three factors: (1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock. No single factor controls the analysis; each is weighed in context in a totality-of-the-circumstances approach.

In 2006 the FCC raised by ten times the amount that it could monetarily fine a broadcaster for a single instance of an indecency violation, from $32,500 to $325,000. Broadcasters do not face such liability, however, if they air indecent content between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. This eight-hour window when indecent content is permitted on the broadcast airwaves is known as the safe-harbor period; it gives adults a chance to receive such indecent content during a period when the FCC believes that fewer children are in the audience and thus are less likely to be exposed to it. In essence, this safe-harbor period is designed to strike a balance between the First Amendment interest of adults to receive indecent speech, on the one hand, and the government interest in helping parents shield their children from indecent content, on the other.

In 2004 the FCC vigorously applied its indecency standard when it issued an aggregate $550,000 fine against various CBS television stations for airing that same year the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. It was, at the time, the largest indecency fine ever levied. The FCC focused its inquiry on Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's performance of the song "Rock Your Body." The duet concluded with Timberlake's removal of a portion of Jackson's leather bustier, briefly exposing her breast to the camera, at the precise moment when Timberlake finished the song's last lyric, "gonna have you naked by the end of this song." In reaching its decision that the broadcast was indecent, the FCC initially found that the halftime broadcast culminated in on-camera partial nudity with Jackson's exposed breast, thus constituting a depiction of a sexual organ under its definition of indecency. It then concluded that this depiction was patently offensive because, although it lasted less than one full second on the air, it was designed to shock and titillate and it was graphic and explicit. In 2006 the FCC upheld this order after CBS appealed it (FCC 2006b).

In 2006 the FCC issued a new record-setting aggregate fine of more than $3.6 million against CBS affiliates for airing an episode of the show Without a Trace that, in the FCC's determination, was indecent because it graphically depicted teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy. The episode had aired at 9:00 p.m. in the central and mountain time zones, thus placing it outside the safe-harbor period. Although no nudity was shown and the sex was merely simulated, the FCC nonetheless found that it was indecent, reasoning that the episode "contains numerous depictions of sexual conduct among teenagers that are portrayed in such a manner that a child watching the program could easily discern that the teenagers shown in the scene were engaging in sexual activities, including apparent intercourse. The background sounds, which include moaning, add to the graphic and explicit sexual nature of the depictions" (FCC 2006a). The FCC does not monitor the airwaves looking and listening for indecent content that it would like to censor. Rather, it considers and evaluates whether a broadcast is indecent only after receiving a formal complaint from a listener or viewer. By 2006, organizations such as the Parents Television Council actively monitored the airwaves, and its members had filed thousands of complaints for alleged indecency violations with the FCC.

To escape the FCC's censorship of indecent sexual content in the early twenty-first century, some radio show hosts such as Howard Stern abandoned over-the-air radio and moved to subscription-based satellite radio where the FCC does not censor indecent content. This demonstrates that the effect of censorship of sexual content may not be to eradicate it but simply to shift it to another venue or mode of communication.

This section has so far described the U.S. government's censorship powers over three distinct types of sexual content: obscenity, child pornography, and broadcast indecency. One might wonder what its censorship powers are over adult pornography. The problem here is that there is not a precise legal definition of pornography in the United States; rather, it is a catchall term that means many different things to many different people. Hustler magazine may be considered pornographic by many people because of its sexual content, but that is not a legal determination. Obscenity and pornography thus are not the same thing; the former is a legal term, the latter is not. Something may be pornographic in the eyes of many yet not be obscene under the Miller test in a court of law.


In order to ward off government censorship of sexual and violent content in their media products, many entertainment-based industries have adopted and employed voluntary ratings systems that provide consumers and viewers with package-affixed labels and warnings about the content in a particular product. While such voluntary ratings systems do not constitute private censorship to the extent that the content of the product itself is not altered by the imposition of a rating or warning label, they do amount to good-faith and self-regulatory efforts to monitor content to fend off censorship. For instance, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)—a nongovernmental organization—has a voluntary rating system, first adopted in 1968, that rates movies, taking into account factors such as theme, language, violence, nudity, and sex. Although no film company is forced to submit a film for rating to the MPAA, the vast majority opt to do so. The video game industry also has a voluntary rating system run by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. For instance, a video game rated AO (Adults Only) means that the content may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity. In the music industry as well, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) places voluntary warning labels on CDs. In each case, the hope of these industries is that enforcement of their own voluntary rating system will be sufficient to prevent and stave off official government censorship of their content.

Such voluntary rating systems, however, can actually lead to private self-censorship. For instance, most movie producers do not want an NC-17 (No One 17 and Under Admitted) rating on a movie because most large theater chains will not show such movies on their screens, thus reducing the amount of potential box-office revenue to the take from only a tiny number of theaters nationwide and effectively spelling the kiss of death for the movie. Thus a producer of a film that initially receives an NC-17 rating might choose to go back and re-edit the movie, voluntarily eliminating certain graphic sexual scenes in order to obtain a less severe R (Restricted: Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian) or the even more lucrative and family-friendly PG-13 rating (Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13) which is "by far the most profitable rating that a movie can receive" (Mundy 2003, p. W12). Even advertisements for movies may be subject to self-censorship as a result of a voluntary rating system. For instance, in 2006 the MPAA, which approves advertising for the films it rates, called for the producers of a documentary titled The Road to Guantánamo to change a movie poster that showed "a man hanging by his handcuffed wrists, with a burlap sack over his head and a blindfold tied around the hood" (Kennicott 2006, p. C1). Although not government censorship, this is a clear case of self-censorship by the movie industry.

The voluntary ratings also can lead to corporate censorship. This occurs when large retailers and distributors use the ratings as the criteria for refusing to sell products with a specific warning label or rating. The Harvard University law professor Paul C. Weiler (2006) writes that Wal-Mart, the largest seller of record albums, not only will "not stock any NC-17 or X-Rated videos, but it will not sell any record albums that carry an RIAA 'parental advisory' rating. Needless to say, one cannot buy albums by gangsta rap artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg or Tupac Shakur at a Wal-Mart outlet" (p. 128). In some cases, religious organizations and advocacy groups such as the National Institute on Media and the Family put pressure on corporations to engage in such censorship. For instance, in 2005 retailer Best Buy, acting "under pressure from religious groups, unveiled one of the toughest policies yet to keep violent and sexually explicit video games out of the hands of children" (Serres 2005, p. 2D). Specifically, Best Buy implemented a program that secretly monitors its employees and then fires the ones who sell video games rated M (Mature) to minors. Other retailers refuse to even stock M-rated games under such pressure from some religious and pro-family advocacy groups.

Even when a product is not rated, some corporations simply refuse to sell it. For instance, "many groups have warred against Playboy, successfully getting it pulled from magazine stands in places including Wal-Mart and some 7-Eleven stores. The religious right has rallied against the magazine from the pulpit and in books" (Guerrero 2003, p. 12).


By 2005 the Adult Video News, an adult trade industry publication, estimated that adult entertainment was a $12.6 billion industry in the United States. Adult sexual content was clearly popular among many people—in addition to such massive revenue figures were indicators such as the appearance in 2004 on the New York Times Best Sellers list of the porn star Jenna Jameson's memoir, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, and the proliferation across the country of clean, well-lighted adult content stores called Hustler Hollywood. Nevertheless, censorship efforts continued. The administration of President George W. Bush launched two high-profile federal obscenity prosecutions targeting the companies Extreme Associates, Inc., and JM Productions.

Community standards about sexual practices are critical in such obscenity prosecutions, as the Miller test for obscenity asks jurors to consider whether material is obscene in light of contemporary community standards. Importantly, the term contemporary means that what might have once been obscene may not be in the early twenty-first century; likewise, the term community means that what may be obscene in one state (and thus subject to censorship there) may not be obscene in another state. Indeed, the Miller test does not use a nationwide community standard but leaves it up to juries in the states to determine what their contemporary standards are and what can and cannot be censored. Some members of the adult entertainment industry in the early twenty-first century are thus cautious about shipping content into conservative states such as Utah and Georgia. Such a decision by companies to not to mail content to certain states is an example of self-censorship. It also means that picking the right venue—a more sexually conservative one—by the government in a federal obscenity prosecution can result in a censorship-friendly verdict and conviction. As time goes on, it remains to be seen how shifting values and mores about sexual practices in the United States will affect the government's censorship efforts. If citizens become more tolerant of different sexual practices that once were considered taboo and become more comfortable in viewing images of sexual conduct, then it will, in turn, become increasingly difficult for the government to win obscenity convictions and censor sexual content.


A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966).

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

de Grazia, Edward. 1992. Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. New York: Random House.

Dworkin, Andrea. 2004. "Pornography, Prostitution, and a Beautiful and Tragic Recent History." In Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, ed. Rebecca Whisnant and Christine Stark. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press.

Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).

Feminists for Free Expression (FFE). "FFE Mission." Available from http://www.ffeusa.org/html/mission/index.html.

Garry, Patrick. 1993. An American Paradox: Censorship in a Nation of Free Speech. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Green, Jonathon. 1990. The Encyclopedia of Censorship. New York: Facts On File.

Guerrero, Lucio. 2003. "50 Years Later, Playboy Still Swinging." Chicago Sun-Times, November 28, p. 12.

Heins, Marjorie. 2001. Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. New York: Hill and Wang.

Jansen, Sue Curry. 1991. Censorship: The Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kennicott, Philip. 2006. "MPAA Rates Poster an F." Washington Post, May 17, C1.

Lane, Frederick S., III. 2000. Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age. New York: Routledge.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1993. Only Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).

Mundy, Liza. 2003. "Do You Know Where Your Children Are?" Washington Post, November 16, W12.

New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971).

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

Serres, Chris. 2005. "Best Buy Toughens Its Policy on Sale of Violent Video Games." Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 20, 2D.

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

Soley, Lawrence. 2002. Censorship, Inc.: The Corporate Threat to Free Speech in the United States. New York: Monthly Review Press.

U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 2006a. Complaints against Various Television Licensees Concerning Their December 31, 2004 Broadcast of the Program "Without a Trace." FCC 06-18, File No. EB-05-IH-0035 (March 15, 2006).

U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 2006b. Complaints against Various Television Licensees Concerning Their February 1, 2004 Broadcast of the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show. FCC 06-19, File No. EB-04-IH-0011 (March 15, 2006).

United States v. One Book Called "Ulysses," 5 F.Supp. 182 (S.D. N.Y. 1933), aff'd 72 F.2d 705 (2d Cir. 1934).

Weiler, Paul C. 2006. Entertainment, Media, and the Law. 3rd edition. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West.

                                              Clay Calvert


views updated May 23 2018



Among the most debated aspects of film culture are issues of censorship and control. Many controversial films have been cut or banned by censorship bodies or local or state authorities. Yet it would be wrong to see film censorship as largely the removal and prohibition of whole movies or specific images. Film censors tend to see themselves as classifiers, administering certificates that aim to control the type of audience that sees a particular movie. If they lack such a certificate, some films' reception is restricted; studios or distributors can also act to prohibit a film by withdrawing it from circulation for contractual, legal, or political reasons. The controlling of the film image is most noticeable after production, but a significant amount of the regulation occurs during production moreover in the preproduction stages. In the classical period of film production (between the 1930s and the 1960s), films were often censored during the script stage, with studios removing content that could potentially run afoul of the censors. Studios were keen to comply with censors to avoid the expense of making cuts as well as delays in the film's release.

It is not just the content of film that is regulated, with all areas of film culture coming under scrutiny. This ranges from the granting of an exhibition license to permitted modes of promotion, publicity, and merchandising (the content and nature of posters and trailers and the suitability of associated toys). The pervasiveness of film culture also means that movies are more than just cinema screenings; the censorship and regulation of film is present in other areas of exhibition, where a particular production can experience an alternative reception. For instance, a film may be cut for language or scenes of an unsuitable nature when it is shown as in-flight entertainment, made available for DVD home rental, or broadcast later on television. In the United Kingdom, editing swear words for television is known as "funstering," allegedly after British television's first screening of Lethal Weapon (1987), when "Let's get the fuckers!" was replaced with "Let's get the funsters!" In terms of film content, though, the more common concerns are screen violence, sex, and sex crime.


A system of film censorship existed in the United States as early as 1907, when it was introduced in Chicago under pressure from social reformers. The rapid emergence of the nickelodeons gave rise to concerns not only about the fire hazards within them, but also the content of films being viewed by unaccompanied children in these darkened venues. In Chicago an ordinance decreed that all films within the city had to be screened first to the police for approval. Similar concerns existed wherever the nickelodeons emerged and, in New York one proprietor was arrested for projecting a film to children that showed a Chinese opium den. On Christmas Eve in 1908, the New York City police commissioner, as part of his tough stance on nickelodeons, revoked the licenses of 550 such film venues, requiring them to apply for a new entertainment license. The film industry, then based in New York, funded a Board of Censorship for the city in March 1909. As more states adopted a practice of film censorship, the US film industry formed its own national regulatory body, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, in 1916. This failed to satisfactorily control the content of film, and in 1921 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was created, an association fronted by Will Hays, formerly the US Postmaster General. This too failed to establish the desired control, and under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, the Production Code, a list of guidelines and prohibitions developed from Hays's earlier unsuccessful thirty-six rules, was adopted on 31 March 1930. The code was prepared by a Catholic layman, Martin Quigley, and a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel

b. William Harrison Hays, Sullivan, Indiana, 5 November 1879, d. 7 March 1954

Dubbed by Variety as the "czar of all the Rushes," William Harrison Hays is best remembered for overseeing the creation of the Production Code that would informally bear his name. However, Hays's responsibilities and influence extended far beyond a censorial arena. His centrality in manufacturing positive public relations for the Hollywood film industry, maintaining political contacts through four presidential administrations, and consolidating control of international distribution channels cannot be overstated.

Following his early career as a church elder and small-town lawyer, Hays gained public prominence as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1918. Demonstrating a gift for diplomacy and political machinations, he won the public support of several studios for Warren Harding's presidential campaign. In return, Harding appointed him Postmaster General shortly after coming to office in 1921. At this time, studio chiefs were facing a three-pronged threat: an onslaught of criticism in the popular press for their apparent celebration of vice and the scandalous offscreen behavior of their creative personnel, the hearing of pro-censorship bills in thirty-six states, and a looming federal antitrust suit instigated by the Federal Trade Commission. To combat these problems, the studios hired Hays in March 1922 to head a newly created trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (MPPDA).

Hays's first ambition for the MPPDA was to generate publicity for a "reformed," civically responsible Hollywood. Under Hays, beginning in 1925, the MPPDA's Committee on Public Relations labored intensively to mollify policy makers and shapers of public opinion. Such good relations would help quell the threat of government regulation and at the same time mute small exhibitors' complaints about the "smut" pushed upon them by the industry's block-booking practices. Second, Hays organized a system of voluntary self-regulation to ensure that propriety was maintained in the content of all studio productions. The Motion Picture Production Code was drafted in 1930, but its purpose was not only to regulate screen content; its implementation would also draw attention away from the industry's monopolistic trade practices and prevent lost revenues caused by the arbitrary proscriptions of state censor boards.

Finally, by nurturing local political alliances developed during the Coolidge administration, Hays helped prevent successful antitrust legislation from taking effect for almost twenty years after his appointment to the MPPDA. Indeed, the studios' efforts toward vertical integration were actually sanctioned under President Franklin Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and spared from the Justice Department's investigation throughout World War II. Above all, Hays aimed to ensure that the international market remained open to Hollywood product. In 1926 he successfully lobbied Congress to allow the Departments of State and Commerce to financially support Hollywood exports overseas via a Motion Pictures Division. Through such efforts, American domination of international distribution channels is maintained to this day.


Gomery, Douglas, ed. The Will Hays Papers. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1967.

Hays, Will H. The Memoirs of Will H. Hays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.

Maltby, Richard. "The Genesis of the Production Code." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 15, no. 4 (1995): 5–63.

——. "The Production Code and the Hays Office." In Grand Design: Hollywood as Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939, edited by Tino Balio, 37–72. New York: Scribners, 1993.

Moley, Raymond. The Hays Office. 1945. New York: J. S. Ozer, 1971.

Aaron E. N. Taylor

Lord; supervised by Hays, it was referred to as the Hays Code. The Code operated as a guide to film companies as to what was allowed in a film; any film that contained prohibited images or dialogue was denied a Code Seal and was therefore unable to receive distribution or exhibition through the companies that were part of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA).

The years 1930 to 1934, which preceded the Code's effective enforcement, are known as the "pre-Code" period in US cinema. Censorship in this period was markedly lax, with films such as Frankenstein (1931), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), Scarface (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and Baby Face (1933) pushing the boundaries of permissible film content with stories focused on horror, sex, gangsters, and religion. The Hays Code was ridiculed for its inability to enforce censorship; American Catholics began a crusade against Hollywood in 1933, and the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency placed films on its own "banned" list. To appease such a powerful body, in July 1934 a tougher Code was applied under the new control of the Production Code Adminstration and its chief, Joseph Breen. Films such as Blonde Venus and Baby Face were categorized as Class I movies, which meant they were removed immediately from distribution and with the view they would never again be released.

A period of tightly regulated Hollywood production followed, with figures such as Mae West and the cartoon character Betty Boop losing their appeal as their overt sexuality was constrained or erased. Films were still capable of generating controversy: Scarlet Street (1945), The Outlaw (1943), and Baby Doll (1956) were condemned, and in places banned, for their immorality. Baby Doll, a story of lust, sexual repression, and seduction scripted by Tennessee Williams, was described in a Time magazine review as "the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Cinemas exhibiting the film were picketed, while clergymen attempted to record the names of any parishioners who attended screenings. The city of Aurora, Illinois, complained that the film was "scandalous, indecent, immoral, lewd, and obscene," and successfully managed to bar its local exhibition. Clearly, state and municipal authorities were still able to exert their power to censor and prohibit the exhibition of particular films. In 1965 a Supreme Court decision, Freedman v. The State of Maryland, declared this practice unconstitutional, and by 1981 state and local film boards had disappeared.

In the 1960s an influx of foreign films with a stronger adult content, and the emergence of a postclassical Hollywood, with a new wave of directors drawn to a more aggressive and "truthful" cinema, rendered the old Code system unusable. The Production Code was dismantled in 1968, and a ratings system was introduced in its place. This system had four classifications ranging from "G" (Suggested for General Audiences) through "X" (Persons Under 16 Not Admitted; the age was increased to 17 in 1972). The "X"-rating was associated predominantly with films of a pornographic nature, and for some there was a stigma attached to receiving the classification. The art film Henry & June (1990) became the first film to receive the new "NC-17" rating, designed to distance certain films with explicit sexual content from any associations with pornography. Nevertheless, some "NC-17"–rated films, such as Kids (1995) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), retained the stigma, with the major video-rental chains, Blockbuster and Hollywood, refusing to carry such titles.


Film censorship in the United Kingdom began initially with the aim of controlling flammable nitrate film stock. In 1909 the first Cinematograph Act was passed, giving local authorities the right to license buildings for the screening of film only if they met the required fire-prevention standards. However, the terms of the act were wide open and were very soon interpreted for other purposes. In 1910 the London County Council successfully applied the act to restrict the showing of films on Sundays. It was recognized that the act had also enabled local authorities to have legal powers of film censorship. Sensing the difficulties of allowing regional bodies to make their own regulation decisions, fearful of government intervention but also keen to polish its own image as a respectable form of entertainment, the film industry approached the Home Secretary in 1912 with a request to establish an independent and centralized board of censorship. In late 1912 the film industry established the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC, later the British Board of Film Classification) with approval from the Home Office.

The BBFC began viewing films on 1 January 1913 with the declared aim of being "a purely independent and impartial body, whose duty it will be to induce confidence in the minds of licensing authorities and of those who have in their charge the moral welfare of the community generally." The Board had a significant effect on the censorship of films, but it did not change its essential nature. The local authority remained the final court on whether a film should be screened, censored, or banned, even if it had been passed uncut by the BBFC. The local councils largely supported the BBFC's decisions, but there have been notable exceptions such as Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), a film accused of blasphemy by pressure groups but which was classified "AA" (admission prohibited to anyone under 14). It was banned by eleven local authorities, with sixty-two enforcing the classification and twenty-eight reclassifying it "X" (admission prohibited to anyone under 18). In a rare instance, the film Dawn (1928), the World War I story of nurse Edith Cavell, was banned by the BBFC at the insistence of the Foreign Office, which did not wish to upset Germany. But, in opposition, it was passed by many local authorities.

From 1913 to 1932 the BBFC published in its annual reports a list of prohibited film content. Not a code, these lists became known after 1916 as O'Connor's rules (after the new BBFC president T. P. O'Connor, who presented a forty-three-point list). Subject to ridicule, the lists were discontinued in 1932, with films later judged on individual merits. In 1929, for instance, the list included the prohibition of "stories tinctured with salacious wit," "sensual exposition of Eugenic doctrines," "women fighting with knives," "libels on the British nursing profession," "provocative and sensuous exposure of girls' legs," and "abdominal contortions in dancing." From its beginning, the BBFC had an advisory two-point certification system—the "U" certificate, which indicated films especially suitable for children, and the "A" certificate, which indicated films generally suitable for public exhibition—and in 1921 these were formally adopted for the first time.

There had been repeated debates concerning an adults-only category, with proposals for an appropriate certificate being made as early as 1921. In response to the increasing number of American horror films, a new category of film classification was created in January 1933. The new "H" (for "Horrific") classification was purely advisory and did not alter the admission procedures that were already in place, still allowing children into the films if accompanied by a parent or bona fide guardian. This "horrific" category mixed horror films with non-horror films, such as Abel Gance's 1938 antiwar movie J'accuse! and a 1945 United Nations war crime film. The "H" became a film certificate only in June 1937, when it was made the first adults-only certificate in the United Kingdom (admission prohibited to anyone under 16). In January 1951 the "H" was subsumed into the newly created "X" certificate (admission prohibited to anyone under 16; increased to the age of 18 in 1970; in 1982 replaced by a new "18" certificate). Arthur Watkins, the secretary of the BBFC in 1951, described "X" films as not "merely sordid films dealing with unpleasant subjects but films which, while not being suitable for children, are good adult entertainment." The BBFC currently operates eight film and video classifications—from "Uc" (Universal, but especially suitable for very young children), to "R18" (for screenings in licensed sex cinemas, for sex videos that are available only in licensed sex shops, and to persons aged 18 and over).


Although government and local authorities are most responsible for the regulation of movies, moral protest groups can exert enormous pressure on a film that they have deemed to be against their beliefs. National and local elected officials, television broadcasters, and cinema chains have been targeted by organized campaigners who write letters of complaint or form demonstrations outside specific venues. The many pressure groups who have targeted films have included the religious organization the Festival of Light, which in the United Kingdom argued that The Devils (1971) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) were blasphemous; and family protection groups such as mediawatch-uk (formerly the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, founded in 1965, and led by Mary Whitehouse), which has campaigned against violent films such as Baise-moi (2000). In the United States, the gay rights group Queer Nation (formed in 1990) attacked Basic Instinct (1992) as homo-phobic; feminist groups such as Women Against Violence Against Women assailed Dressed to Kill (1980) as misogynistic; and ethnic protest groups have variously picketed against the racial representations of Native Americans in A Man Called Horse (1970), Italian Americans in The Godfather (1972), Puerto Ricans in Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), Cuban Americans in Scarface (1983), and Asian Americans in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Black Rain (1989), and Rising Sun (1993). The popular press can be the most effective tool in generating a moral campaign against a marked film. Thus pressure groups have taken out full-page newspaper ads condemning a production. For instance, the Catholic League advertised in the New York Times against Disney and Miramax for distributing Priest (1994), a film it considered blasphemous for its depiction of sexual acts among members of the clergy.

In the United Kingdom the British press was central to debates surrounding the cinema release of Crash (1996), which The Standard and its reviewer, Alexander Walker, pronounced as depraved. In the 1980s and 1990s, the main target in the United Kingdom was film on video, reflecting the concern that the age of the viewer within the home cannot be controlled (nor the power of the viewer to replay or pause an image). Originally, certification did not apply to video in the United Kingdom, with no age-related limitations. In the initial boom of the video age, from 1979 to 1982, many controversial films slipped out on release with sensational covers exploiting content in order to attract consumers among a mass of video shop choices. It was the covers for videos such as Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur (SS Experiment Camp, 1976) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that drew attention to these films. This developed into a moral panic orchestrated by the press and newspapers such as the Daily Mail, with its "Ban the Sadist Videos" campaign; in response, the Director of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of sixty actionable titles, of which thirty-two were to become banned films, including the notorious titles—so-called "video nasties"—I Spit onYour Grave (also known as Day of the Woman, 1978), The Driller Killer (1979), and The Evil Dead (1981).

In 1982 a series of prosecutions took place against five films that had been charged under the Obscene Publications Act, with police seizing all tape copies. With the press fueling the moral panic by publishing stories of supposed criminal and delinquent behavior directly linked to the content of "video nasties," a new government bill was introduced, the Video Recordings Act (VRA) of 1984, which implemented video classification under the control of the BBFC. The number of examiners at the BBFC rapidly increased from four to fifty to address the quantity of videos that needed classifying. In 1994 the Criminal Justice Act extended the terms of the VRA, with an emphasis on the effect horrific videos may have on children. The act had been influenced by a section of British politicians, supported by the group Movement for Christian Democracy, that viewed the death of a two-year-old child, James Bulger, at the hands of two ten-year-old children, as the result of exposure to video violence. The film at the center of this panic, Child's Play 3 (1991), became the scapegoat in a media witchhunt that lead to The Sun newspaper famously carrying a full front-page image of charred tape copies of the movie within the headline "For the sake of ALL our kids…BURN YOUR VIDEO NASTY."


Central to decisions on the regulation and censorship of film are questions of audience suitability and maturity. Domestic reception of film has raised concerns over unregulated consumption, with video and television versions of films receiving greater censorship. But in one famous case, a film that had been made specifically for British television, Peter Watkins's The War Game (1965), was banned from being shown on the BBC following government intervention. Made to mark the twentieth anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, this drama-documentary depicting the horrors of a nuclear attack on Britain was withdrawn, as the government said it contained "inaccuracies." The struggle to have this important political film seen by the public began with a limited theatrical release at London's National Film Theatre in 1966. With an "X" certificate and cinema chains refusing to exhibit the film, its national release was mainly through church and community halls, where it was booked as an educational screening by groups opposed to nuclear weapons such as CND and the Quakers. Despite The War Game's winning of an Academy Award® for Best Documentary in 1967, the BBC refused to lift its ban on the film until 1985.

Historically, the BBFC had refused to classify political films, waiting until 1954 to grant an "X" certificate to Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin). It had banned the film in 1926 famously declaring that cinema "is no place for politics." The recently introduced "X" certificate was designed to allow many of the foreign films of directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Michelangelo Antonioni to be passed uncut. The censor was now prepared to view this new world cinema as art cinema, to take into account the film's artistic intentions and the maturity of its probable audience. The view of the BBFC was that a foreign film shown only in art cinemas and by a smaller audience was "less likely to produce criticism." Such a view allowed Vittorio De Sica's La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960), with its depiction of a double rape, to be passed uncut, though when the film went on general release and was shown to a wider audience, the scene was removed.

As an extreme example of controlled distribution, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971)—a film that had been banned in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Nova Scotia, among other places—had been passed uncut by the BBFC but was unavailable for screening or broadcast in the United Kingdom for more than twenty-five years, after Kubrick requested that Warner Bros. withdraw all prints from circulation. British newspapers had begun reporting cases of copycat acts of violence, in which juveniles were apparently inspired by the content of the film; it was rumoured that Kubrick began receiving death threats, and in 1973 the film was withdrawn. Its removal was heavily enforced by lawyers, which resulted in the successful prosecution of the Scala, a cinema that dared to present a screening in 1992, and an injunction (later lifted) on British television's Channel 4 to prevent it from showing twelve extracts from the film in 1993. The film was released again in the United Kingdom only following Kubrick's death in 1999.

The cult that grew around A Clockwork Orange made the poster for the film an iconic image. Other posters and advertising material for films have been denied exposure, and though replacement images are found, the cultural impact of the movie is adjusted. In the United Kingdom, one of the most powerful poster-regulating authorities is London Transport, which owns the advertising sites on the underground and key billboards on its aboveground properties. In 1959 it banned a poster for a double bill of The Alligator People and Return of the Fly, for fear that it would frighten children who would be in central London in large numbers for Christmas shopping; in 1989 it removed part of a poster for Peter Jackson's film Bad Taste, which featured an alien with its middle finger raised, that was deemed offensive; and in 1994 it filled in a gap in the split skirt of Demi Moore displayed in the advertising for Disclosure, which it considered erotically charged.


The sensational and exploitable elements of sex and violence have created the biggest debates in film censorship. Under the new "X" rating in the United States, a wave of 1970s "porno chic" or "middle-class porn" appeared on movie screens, exploiting the commercial possibilities of an adults-only rating. In films such as Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), explicit, nonsimulated, penetrative sex was presented as part of a reasonable plot and with respectable production values. Some state authorities issued injunctions against such films to protect "local community standards"; in New York the print of Deep Throat was seized mid-run, and the film's exhibitors were found guilty of promoting obscenity. Caligula (1979), financed by Penthouse magazine, was one of the few of these films to make it to the United Kingdom but only after heavy cuts and initial seizure by British customs. In New Zealand Deep Throat was eventually passed in 1986, yet it remains to be shown; only one cinema tried to organize a screening but was thwarted by the city council that owned the building's lease. Such is the tight regulation of sex in the cinema that its history has been one of a series of certificated firsts. In the United Kingdom this has included the first film to show pubic hair (Antonioni's Blowup, 1966), the first film to depict full frontal nudity (the Swedish production Puss Misterije organizma [W.R.—Mysteries of the Organism], 1971), and the first theatrically distributed film to depict the act of fellatio (Intimacy, 2001). Definitions of sexual explicitness vary widely across national cinemas, with Belle époque (1992) and The Piano (1993) banned in the Philippines.

Sex crime has generated particular concern. In 1976 the BBFC claimed that, in that year, it had viewed fifty-eight films depicting "explicit rape," declaring scenes that glorified it as "obscene." As opposed to questions of "indecency," which have been applied to sexual explicitness, films charged with being obscene have been viewed as having "a tendency to deprave and corrupt" and been liable to prosecution. The art-sex film Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972), with its acts of sodomy and degradation, is one of the most notorious films to depict sexual violence. The film was banned by several UK and US local authorities. The film was also banned in Portugal (from 1972 to 1973) and in Italy (from 1972 to 1987), with federal authorities there filing five separate charges against named participants in the production, including lead actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider.

An explicit rape is part of the extreme horrors of The Evil Dead, with a woman assaulted by trees in a possessed forest. This scene was originally left uncut by the British censor but later removed: the chief censor, James Ferman, said "initially we did not think anybody would identify with a tree." In Germany the film was originally banned for having violated the "dignity of humankind." It was not until 1992 that the decision was overturned, with the German High Court ruling that the zombies in the film were not human and therefore their dignity had not been violated. Key guidelines exist within film censorship regarding screen violence. In the United Kingdom the censor is most concerned with what is known as the process shot, the point at which the weapon makes contact with the victim's body. The shots prior to this, showing the wielding of the weapon, are known as the "occasion"; the shots that follow, depicting the effect of the action, are known as the "price." The employment of "everyday implements" in violence is a concern, with the slasher film The Burning (1981) first receiving cuts for its explicit process shots and then later banned on video for its scenes of mutilation and harm using garden shears. Censors are also concerned by "overkill," or the repeated use of a weapon on a victim, and by its being tugged or twisted. There is also the issue of "personalized violence": in a film such as Cliffhanger (1993), attacks on Sylvester Stallone's character were subject to more cuts because of the audience's assumed empathy with the lead actor.

SEE ALSO Horror Films;Pornography;Religion;Sexuality;Spectatorship and Audiences;Violence


Bernstein, Matthew, ed. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. London: Athlone Press, 2000.

Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Conrich, Ian, and Julian Petley, eds. "Forbidden British Cinema." Special issue of Journal of Popular British Cinema 2 (2000).

Couvares, Francis G., ed. Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Lewis, Jon. Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry. New York and London: New York University Press, 2000.

Lyons, Charles. The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Mathews, Tom Dewe. Censored. London: Chatto and Windus, 1994.

Petrie, Ruth, ed. Film and Censorship: The Index Reader. London and Washington, DC: Cassell, 1997.

Robertson, James C. The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913–1975. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Sova, Dawn B. Forbidden Films: Censorship Histories of 125 Motion Pictures. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.

Ian Conrich


views updated May 17 2018


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


views updated May 23 2018


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.


views updated May 29 2018


Sections within this essay:

Early History
Censorship in the United States
Book Censorship
Music Censorship
Press Censorship

Electronic Censorship
Additional Resources
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
American Library Association
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Federal Communications Commission (FCC)


"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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Despite the guarantee implicit in the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there have been many attempts in the ensuing two centuries to censor or ban speech, both in print and in other media.

Censorship is at best problematic and at worst dangerous when it tries to silence the voice of the powerless at the behest of the powerful. History has shown that power and influence are not reliable guides for judgment when it comes to information. The Nazi government in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and the governments of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, have shown the world what happens when large, powerful nations choose to deprive their own citizens of knowledge and a voice. In the United States, Americans pride themselves on freedom of speech and freedom of the press—but many of them have experienced censorship. Boards of education frequently try to ban certain books from their school districts; television and radio stations ban certain programming; and newspapers may alter certain stories. The reasons for censorship are numerous, but they all share a common goal: protection. Perhaps children are the most frequently protected group. Books are banned when they depict violence or sexually suggestive material. Motion pictures are rated to protect young people from sex and violence on the screen. Internet resources are filtered to ensure that students will be unable to log into pornographic web sites.

Society, and often the courts, have determined that some information does need to be censored, and that not all media deserve First Amendment protection. Deciding which materials fall into which categories is a subject of ongoing debate.

Early History

Censorship laws existed in ancient Rome and Greece more than 2,500 years ago; ancient societies in the Middle East and China also had censorship regulations. The role of censorship was to establish moral standards for the general population; civilizations that exercised it saw censorship as a means of helping the people by providing them with guidance.

The invention of movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century revolutionized the printing industry; it made more books available and helped literacy spread beyond just the most educated in soci-ety. A more literate public meant more need for censorship. The Roman Catholic Church released a list of Prohibited Books, or Index Librorum Prohibitorum, in 1559, the first of 20 such lists (the last was issued in 1948). This list included books deemed by the Church to be heretical. Authors such as Galileo were denounced, and some authors (such as Sir Thomas More) were put to death. Prohibitions were not only religious; in 1563, Charles IX of France issued a decree that all printed material required his special permission.

Nonetheless, it became harder to suppress information, and by the end of the seventeenth century there was a movement toward freedom of speech and the press. Sweden established a law guaranteeing freedom of the press in 1766, followed by Denmark in 1770. The newly formed United States put the First Amendment into its Constitution in 1787, and the French government moved in the same direction in 1789 at the dawn of its revolution.

Censorship in the United States

The First Amendment has long been the standard by which the U.S. government has measured the freedom of individuals to speak or write their opinions without fear of reprisals. That freedom is not absolute; one of the most commonly cited examples warns that people do not have the right to walk into a crowded theater and shout, "Fire!" thus causing people to panic and trample over each other. Through the decaded the government has attempted to determine legitimate curbs to this freedom as opposed to arbitrary or discriminatory prohibitions.

Book Censorship

Censorship existed in the United States from its beginnings, the existence of the First Amendment notwithstanding. But although there were federal anti-obscenity laws, censorship itself was not mandated by federal or state governments. What codified censorship was the 1873 Comstock Act, which called for the banning of literature deemed sexually arousing, even indirectly. The man for whom the act is named, Anthony Comstock, was the leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and a special agent for both the U.S. Post Office and the New York state prosecutor's office. The Comstock Act banned the mailing, importation, and transportation of any printed material (even private letters) that contained lewd or lascivious material. It also banned the transport of any sort of contraceptive drug or device, as well as literature describing contraceptive devices. What this meant was that a book that in any way made mention of any sort of birth control could be considered lewd and subject to confiscation. Violators of the Comstock Act (Comstock himself was deputized and arrested many violators himself) faced steep fines and even time in prison.

Other books that were affected by the Comstock Act included The Decameron (written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the fourteenth century), Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

In Boston, the Watch and Ward Society, which had long championed against what it deemed indecent, organized book bans in the 1920s, which gave the language the phrase "Banned in Boston." Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fought to challenge the censorship laws. These groups were successful on several occasions, winning the right in 1933 for James Joyce's Ulysses to be imported into the United States and in 1960 when federal courts allowed the full version of Lady Chatterley's Lover to be published here.

Beginning in the 1950s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases helped change the scope of censorship laws in the United States.

Butler v. State of Michigan. The Butler case determined in 1957 that adult reading material did not need to be restricted to protect minors. It struck down a Michigan law that outlawed any printed material with obscene language (which could corrupt children), noting that the material's existence by itself was not a danger to young readers and the law was too sweeping. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that the Michigan law limited the entire adult population to "reading only what is fit for children."

Roth v. United States. Also decided in 1957, this case upheld a conviction for mailing materials that were deemed to be "in the prurient interest." Although Roth made clear that obscene material was not subject to First Amendment protection, the court did note that material that has some redeeming social value or importance. (Obscenity, wrote Justice William Brennan, was "utterly" without such value.)

Jacobellis v. Ohio. This case was decided in 1964. It held that "national" standards for obscenity determined "community" standards. A Cleveland Heights, Ohio theater had shown a foreign film with an explicit sex scene. The theater owner was arrested for violating the state obscenity statute, but the Supreme Court held that since the film in question had been screened across the country without incident, it was not obscene. "The Court has explicitly refused to tolerate a result whereby "the constitutional limits of free expression in the Nation would vay within state lines,"' wrote Justice William Brennan. "We see even less justification for allowing such limits with town or county lines." Jacobellis was the case in which Justice Potter Stewart made his famous observation about obscenity: "I know it when I see it."

Memoirs v. Attorney General of Massachusetts. This case, decided in 1966, reversed a state court's ruling that the 1749 book Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, commonly known as Fanny Hill, was obscene. The reason, explained the court, was that the book, despite its content (much of which could be construed as offensive) geared toward prurient interest, the book was not "utterly" without redeeming social value. To be obscene, the book would have to have prurient appeal, offensiveness, and utter lack of redeeming social value.

Ginzburg v. United States. This case was decided in 1966, and the court upheld the conviction of a publisher who had marketed and mailed three sexually explicit publications. The reason the court reached this decision was that the material, though potentially not patently obscene, had been marketed solely as erotic material and thus could be reasonably construed on that basis to be obscene.

Ginsberg v. State of New York. In this 1968 case, the Supreme Court upheld a statute that a state can create more stringent obscenity standards for minors than for adults. The defendant had sold two adult magazines to a 16-year-old boy, and argued that the anti-obscenity statute violated that minor boy's right to read under the First Amendment. The court found that there was no violation of the child's rights because the material in question was obscene for children.

Miller v. California. This landmark 1973 case established a new definition for obscenity, replacing the standard set by Roth. The defendant had been convicted under California's obscenity law for mailing sexually explicit advertisements to sell adult books and films. An appellate court uphend the conviction, but the Supreme Court vacated the appellate court's decision and sent it back for reconsideration using the new definition. Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the majority, outlined the definition: "The basic guidelines … must be: (a) whether the average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient interest; (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."

Board of Education v. Pico. Decided in 1982 by a 5-4 majority, this case ruled that school boards do not have the absolute right to remove books from school libraries. A school board in Island Trees, New York removed several books from the school library shelves, including The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Best Short Stories of Negro Writers (edited by Langston Hughes), A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich by Alice Childress, and A Reader for Writers (edited by Jerome Archer). The school board, when challenged about its decision, called the books "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." Although it was determined by a separate committee that several of the books should be replaced, but the board refused. A group of students sued the district.

Justice William Brennan wrote that "the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of First Amendment rights of students." While the court noted that school boards do have discretion in what books to acquire for the school, and it could reject any works deemed to be "pervasively vulgar."

School boards continue to attempt to ban books, with classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men among the most frequently challenged, according to the American Library Association. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the Harry Potter series of books, which tell the story of a young aspiring wizard and his adventures in wizard school, have become a focal point for many who oppose the focus on wizardry and magic.

Music Censorship

Musical lyrics have been the subject of censorship through the years, particularly those that were deemed sexually suggestive or violent. Censorship has affected the works and performances of such disparate artists as Cole Porter, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Rosemary Clooney, the Carpenters, Sheena Easton, Perry Como, and Bob Dylan.

In 1954, for example, Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You" was edited for radio broadcast to re-move the line "I get no kick from cocaine" (it was replaced with "I get perfume from Spain"); the American Broadcasting Company bans Rosemary Clooney's performance of "Mambo Italiano," citing inadequate standards for "good taste"; and police in Long Beach, California and Memphis, Tennessee confiscated jukeboxes thought to contain songs with suggestive lyrics (the owners were fined as well).

Sometimes, the censors' rationale had nothing to do with the lyrics. In 1968, a radio station in El Paso, Texas banned the playing of songs performed by Bob Dylan because his lyrics were hard to understand. (The did not ban performances of his lyrics when sung by other artists.) And in 1990, a radio station in Nebraska led a boycott against the music of k.d. lang—not because of what she sang, but because she was a vegetarian.

Although the music industry has frequently come under attack by opponents they deemed too reactionary or literal-minded, mainstream concerns about lyrics were being expressed more openly. In 1985, twenty wives of politicians and business leaders in Washington, D.C. (including Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore) formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The group's goal was to lobby the music industry for a ratings system for music similar to that used in the film industry, the printing of lyrics on album covers, and an overall reassessment of musicians and lyricists whose work could be deemed violent or explicitly sexual. In 1990, a parental warning sticker system was adopted by the recording industry that would place warning stickers on records deemed explicit. A year later, Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, announced that it would refuse to stock any stickered albums in its stores. In 1995, former U.S. education secretary William Bennett and national Political Congress of Black Women chair C. Delores Tucker addressed a shareholders' meeting of Time-Warner, Inc., deploring rap music lyrics that promoted violence or that degraded women.

After the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Clear Channel Communications (the largest broadcast station owner in the United States) released a list of 150 suggested songs it deemed "lyrically questionable" because they had metaphoric references to planes, crashing, and death. The list included Steve Miller, s"Jet Airliner," the Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me," Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," and the Jerry Lee Lewis song "Great Balls of Fire."

Press Censorship

The concept of "freedom of the press" was established in New York when it was still a British colony. In 1734, John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was charged with libel against colonial governor William Cosby when he printed articles critical of Cosby's decision to remove the chief justice of New York from office. He was imprisoned for nine months before his case went to trial. Philadelphia attorney Andrew Hamilton argued that statements could not be libelous if they were true. Although English law did not accept truth as a defense to libel, Hamilton pressed the issue with the jury, which found Zenger not guilty on August 4, 1735. This case set a precedent that truth is an absolute defense to libel.

Over the years, freedom of the press has been an important element of American society. Newspapers have traditionally been given considerable leeway in what they publish, and there has never been a shortage of opinions expressed in print in the United States. Nonetheless, censorship is hardly unknown in the press, or in broadcast news programs.

Often, the press censorship is voluntary. In times of war, for example, the press is careful about publishing material that could provide enemy forces with sensitive information about U.S. troops. On a more personal level, public figures were long afforded the courtesy of not having their private lives printed in newspapers or broadcast through other media. President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not stand unassisted after his 1921 bout with polio, but during his presidency the press voluntarily refrained from publishing photographs or releasing film footage of Roosevelt being assisted or using a wheelchair. (As the twentieth century progressed, this sort of courtesy eroded steadily, which sometimes may have given the public more information than it wanted about the private lives of public figures.)

Also, the press and broadcast media have often felt compelled to be sensitive to advertisers and sponsors. There are countless examples of brave publications running unsympathetic stories about advertisers, who would promptly cancel all future advertising with the offending publication. And there are examples of publications refusing to run stories that could offend a potential advertiser. But these are not examples of government-sanctioned censorship.

That said, there have been charges of government censorship over the years from the press, particularly during war time. One of the most noteworthy exam-ples comes from the Iraq War, which began in March 2003. Not long after the war began, the Pentagon issued an order banning the release of photographs of flag-draped military coffins returning from the battle zone. (The ban had actually been in effect for several years before the war but not enforced.) Proponents of the ban argued that publishing the photos did a disservice to the privacy of the fallen soldiers and their families. Opponents of the ban countered that it was nothing more than a public relations ploy to minimize the true scope of American war casualties.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966, establishes the public's right to obtain information from any agency of the federal government. Any group or individual (foreign nationals as well as American citizens) can file a request. Each government agency is required by law to provide the public with information on how to file FOIA requests. There are exemptions to FOIA, including national security information, internal personnel information, confidential business information, inter- and intra-agency confidential communications, law enforcement records, financial institutions, and geological information. FOIA was amended in 1996 to allow increased access to electronic information.

Electronic Censorship

As a resource for information, the Internet has been both exciting and exasperating for precisely the same reason: the volume of unrestricted material that can be accessed instantly from virtually any-where in the world. This means that inaccurate information can be distributed as quickly and easily as carefully researched material. It also means that offensive material, including pornography, can be posted and accessed. Balancing the First Amendment right to free speech with the need to protect against unprotected material has been a key focus of the U.S. government since the 1990s.

In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which prohibited the posting of materials deemed "indecent" or "patently offensive." There were already laws prohibiting child pornography and obscenity; CDA went further and ultimately prohibited what opponents claimed was protected speech under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down CDA in 1997, claiming that its reach was too broad.

Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) in 1998 and the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000. COPA established criminal penalties for any one who distributed indecent online material to minors, and CIPA required libraries and schools to place filters on their computers or face the loss of federal funding. COPA was challenged in the courts and in 2003 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that is was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme court upheld that decision in 2004 by a 5-4 margin. As for CIPA, it withstood a challenge when the Supreme Court found it constitutional by a 6-3 margin, but a pluraility of the justices noted that the filtering systems needed to be easy to disable for adults who wish to use public library computers.

First Amendment arguments have also allowed unsolicited e-mail (better known as spam) to clog the e-mail boxes of millions of individuals, not to mention commercial, corporate, and even government e-mail accounts. Proponents of spam claim that it is the electronic equivalent of bulk mail and is protected speech. Opponents claim that spam is far more insidious because many spammers use phony e-mail addresses and subject lines, making it impossible to contact the source to ask to be removed from the mailing list. (Experts on spam advise against sending a reply to "opt-out" links because this merely assures the spammer that the sender's address is active.) In December 2003 President George W. Bush signed the CAN-SPAM Act, which requires all commercial e-mailers to provide an opportunity to opt out, prohibits false headers and subject lines, and imposes civil penalties on offenders. Though well-intentioned, CAN-SPAM did little to make a real impact, in part because it is easy for spammers to find electronic loopholes that allow them to remain uncaught. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE) is a volunteer nonprofit organization that works to find ways to help reduce spam. Information on consumer guidelines, and on the group's progress, can be found at www.cauce.org.

Additional Resources

Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries, Herbert N. Foerstel, Greenwood Press, 2002.

Censorship in America: A Reference Handbook, Mary Hull, ABC-CLIO, 1999.

The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Diane ravitch, Knopf, 2003.

Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America, Eric Nuzum, Perennial, 2001.


American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

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views updated Jun 08 2018





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.


views updated May 11 2018


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.

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Charles A. Ruud


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In the strict sense, censorship refers to government suppression of specific ideas, forms of expression, or speakers. Private corporations, media conglomerates, schools, and even individuals can effectively suppress speech as well, even though this is not censorship in the technical sense. In ancient Rome, the "censor" was a high public official who, among other duties, controlled public morals. Official censors still exist in some places, while elsewhere more subtle forms of censorship are practiced. Certain subjects have been regular targets of censorship, particularly those involving sex, politics, and religion, singly or in combination.

sexual content

The Athenian playwright Aristophanes (450–388 b.c.e.) had his plays banned in the fifth century b.c.e., in part because of obscenity. In 1818 Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825) published a "family edition" of Shakespeare (1564–1616), which he edited in order to omit any sexually-related content. In 1872 Anthony Comstock (1844–1915) and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice campaigned successfully to censor information about sex and reproduction, resulting in the passage of the Comstock laws in 1873. Particularly after World War II (1939–1945), pornography—considered tasteless and degrading by some and sinful and depraved by others—became the target of censorship efforts in the United States.

Sex education was one of the first victims of the censorship of sexual content. Under the Comstock laws, Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) was arrested and jailed in 1916 for distributing information about birth control. In the early twenty-first century, censorship of sex education persisted in the United States in public school programs, with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 promoting "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage [as] the expected standard of human sexual activity," and excluding information inconsistent with this message.

The American Library Association regularly reports on efforts to remove material with sexual scenes or references from classrooms and school libraries, including The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), Russell Banks' novel Continental Drift (1985), Sophie's Choice (1979) by William Styron, and Seventeen magazine, because an advice column answers questions about sex.

In the United States, "indecent" sexual content has long been banned on network television and radio. Unlike obscenity, which is legally defined as material that 1) is patently offensive, 2) appeals solely to the prurient interest, and 3) lacks scientific, historical, literary, or other value, indecency is a vague and subjective term that varies depending on the government official applying it.

Even though the United States does not ban sexual content in films, the mainstream film industry adopted its own restrictions, first under the Hays Code and later through the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system. Because the rating affects distribution, filmmakers have a financial incentive to tailor their films to obtain the desired rating, which often means that sexual scenes are edited out for U.S. audiences.

the comstock act

In 1873 the U.S. Congress passed an anti-obscenity statute known as the Comstock Act. It is an unmistakable example of state-sponsored censorship and the legal imposition of cultural values.

Called the Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles for Immoral Use, the law made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent or disgusting" literature through the mail. Pamphlets discussing contraceptives were deemed obscene and barred from distribution through the mail. It also became a federal offense to distribute birth control through the postal service or across state lines.

The act was named after Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), a leader of the New York Committee for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock was appointed a special agent for the postal service and was given the right to seize mail he deemed obscene. Local postmasters were granted this power as well.

Following passage of the federal act, many states enacted their own Comstock laws. In Connecticut, for instance, it became illegal to possess contraceptives and married couples were subject to arrest for using birth control in their own homes. Though portions of the laws were slowly repealed, remnants remained on the books well into the 1990s.

Pornography is protected in the United States, unless it can be proven obscene by the standards of the state. Internationally, however, it is one of the most frequently banned forms of sexual expression. It was censored throughout Eastern Europe until the dissolution of the Soviet bloc ; it is banned in many Arab countries; and is strictly regulated elsewhere. In spite of attempts at regulation, the Internet provides increased access to this ubiquitous yet controversial type of expression.

political speech

Since Confucius's (551–479 b.c.e.) writings were burned around 250 b.c.e., when a new dynasty came to power, rulers have tried to squelch political criticism, dissent, and alternative belief systems deemed essential to their hegemony .

Nazi Germany provides perhaps the most infamous example of a regime that openly embraced censorship as a way to advance its philosophy and goals. Press censorship, restricted access to information, and propaganda were used to manipulate public opinion. Books were burned if they were deemed to "act subversively on our future or strike at the root of German thought, the German home and the driving forces of our people" (Green 1990, p. 30). Jews and communists were considered "racially inferior" and "politically unsound," and their works were banned; artwork by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Marc Chagall (1887–1985), Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), and others was condemned as the "products of morbid and perverted minds" (Green 1990, pp. 106–107).

The Nazi regime may have been most extreme in its use of censorship, but it was hardly alone. Suppression of political speech in the former Soviet Union was legendary, ensnaring luminaries such as Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918).

In Zimbabwe, music censorship chokes off a culturally important avenue of peaceful political protest, and in China, Indonesia, Singapore, and many other countries, restrictions on Internet access may be enforced through criminal sentences. Dozens of reporters are killed around the world each year, some because of where they are reporting, others for what they are reporting.

Censorship is a common response to calls for economic, political, and social change, as advocates frequently learned. In the United States Emma Goldman (1869–1940), a well-known radical, went to jail for encouraging unemployed workers to demonstrate, as did Eugene Debs (1855–1926), who protested against World War I (1914–1918). Later, the infamous "cointelpro," or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counterintelligence program, was created by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) to infiltrate groups promoting peace and civil rights, and search for subversives. Notwithstanding these setbacks, protesters—from suffragettes to union organizers to "women's lib" and gay pride marchers—ultimately achieved many of their goals, demonstrating the close link between civil liberties and civil rights.

Nonetheless, underlying sociocultural tensions over rights issues periodically erupt in censorship disputes. Books such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) continue to be attacked for the use of racial epithets, and books such as Lesléa Newman's Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) are repeated subjects of criticism for representing same-sex relationships in a positive light.

Suppression of political dissent resurfaced in the United States after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Press access to military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq was restricted, and unclassified information was deleted from libraries and government websites. College and university faculty have been disciplined for criticizing the government, and the University of North Carolina was attacked for assigning a book on the Qur'an. The FBI investigated a college student with an antiwar poster and a gallery containing antiwar art, while the Pentagon banned press photographs of coffins holding the remains of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Political censorship in the United States has not been confined strictly to the political arena, however. In 2004 some 4,000 scientists—including 48 Nobel laureates, 62 recipients of the National Medal of Science, and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences—issued a statement protesting government misrepresentation of scientific fact. The scientists' statement accused the government of using the distortion for political gain, depriving the public of key information.


In 399 b.c.e., Socrates (470–399 b.c.e.) was convicted for his religious beliefs and corrupting youth; he was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. In the Middle Ages (c.e. 500–1500), the Talmud was burned throughout Europe. In 1535 William Tyndale (1494–1536) was burned at the stake for translating the Bible from Latin into English. The Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist Galileo (1564–1642) had his books burned because his theories conflicted with Catholic Church dogma; in 1633 he was forced to recant and placed under house arrest. Finally, the Index Liborum Prohibitorum ("Index of Forbidden Books"), which identified books the Catholic Church considered immoral or heretical , existed from 1571 to 1965.

In modern times, the fatwa, or decree, issued by Iranian religious leaders against writer Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses (1988), reflecting the clash between fundamentalism and secular intellectual Islam, threatened his life and required him to go into hiding. In France, the novelist Michel Houellebecq (b. 1958) was tried for inciting religious hatred by expressing negative views about Islam. The Taliban in Afghanistan banned television, music, and film in its campaign against modernity; violation of its edicts could result in death. In Bangladesh, Taslima Nasrin (b. 1962) has been the repeated target of censorship and death threats for her feminist views, which are seen as anti-Islamic.

Religiously motivated efforts by some private groups seeking to impose censorship are prominent in the United States as well. This is evident in the protests of the early twenty-first century against the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi (1999), and The Holy Virgin Mary, a 1996 painting by Turner-award-winning artist Chris Ofili. Other attacks focus on sexual conduct that is inconsistent with religious beliefs. For example, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-prize-winning play Angels in America (1993) and Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi both deal with same-sex relationships.


Around the world and across time, people have recognized the dehumanizing effects of censorship. The Roman Cicero (106 b.c.e.–43 b.c.e.) likened the lack of freedom of expression to slavery. To the Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza (1632–1677), "everyone has an inalienable right to his thoughts" (Spinoza 1670, Chapter XVIII, line 42). The risk censorship creates for learning and knowledge also is acknowledged by the English philosopher Milton (1608–1674): "hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe," (Milton 1644) and by the Chinese proverb, "A closed mind is like a closed book; just a block of wood."

Legal protection against censorship was first adopted in 1791, in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which remains a model for much of the world. It reads: "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." While some speech is not protected (e.g., threats and intimidation, incitement to imminent violence, libel, slander, defamation, and obscenity), the First Amendment is designed to ensure that government does not control the "market place of ideas." Later, in 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights offered protection for "the right to freedom of thought [and] conscience" (Article 18). As history reveals, however, legal protections are necessary but not sufficient to counter censorship. In addition, people must understand, claim, and exercise the right to free expression.

See also: Freedom of Expression; Freedom of Information; Freedom of the Press; Freedom of Religion and the State; Freedom of Religion, Foundations; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


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Joan E. Bertin

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