From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search
Back • ↑Topics • ↑Categories
What is censorship?

ensorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to a particular organization as determined by a censor.[1] A censor is any autonomous entity tasked with redacting said communicative material. In the present day United States, several ethical issues surrounding censorship have been raised, including the censorship of pornography, television, movies, and music.[2] Because of wildly differing opinion on what constitutes material constitutes censorship, the associated issues with free speech, and differences in regional and international laws and standards regarding censorship, censorship is a hotly debated topic in information technology.

Types of censorship

Censorship takes place in the following forms in both digital and print media:

  • Text: This refers to the censorship of material found in the written media such as newspapers, magazines, published articles, and books.
  • Visual Media: This refers to content that involves motion art or photographs. Examples are comics, television shows, and movies.
  • Audio: Artists must release a “clean” version of their albums, if applicable, to remove any inappropriate language. Most standard AM/FM radio stations are censored and will not play the explicit versions of many songs.

Censorship often occurs in one of two ways: replacement or removal of content.


This type of censorship occurs when a part of a work is edited to replace any controversial expressions. For instance, with replacement, profanity on television is replaced by an alternative audio clip or silence. On other occasions, foul language is replaced by a beeping noise and scenes involving nudity are often blurred. Other forms of replacement include actively replacing words, text, or media that is considered controversial with content that is deemed appropriate. For example, many musical artists often record "non-explicit" versions of tracks because they will be broadcasted on the radio, other times if a character on in a film or television show uses profanity, broadcasters will replace the profane language with a phrase that is "television-friendly".


This type of censorship occurs when the work in question is completely removed from public access. In the context of text censorship, this may involve banning a book in a country. In the visual media, a scene of a movie may be censored in the televised version. Removal censorship is also prevalent on the Internet in specific countries. For example, popular sites such as Facebook and Google are not able to get through China's Internet firewall, making them inaccessible from networks within China.


While the motivation for censorship generally stems from the disapproval of content, censorship is often justified by the argument that the content may have a negative on “public morality.”[3] Moral and religious reasons are often cited for censorship. However, political motivations are also often tied to censorship efforts.[4]

Reasons for censorship


Should governments use censorship?
Political censorship can be used for a variety of purposes. Governments often use censorship for the interest of the security of their nations. Sometimes, it is used to safeguard military intelligence and other security aspects of a country.

Censorship can also be used to conceal useful information and to turn around a political situation. Political leaders can exercise their power to restrict information that speaks against their respective governments [5]. One well-known example is the censorship policy of the People's Republic of China. Across nearly all media sources, including text messages, the PRC government censors a variety of subjects, including politics, foreign competitors, and pornography. It has received large amounts of criticism, from foreign and domestic sources, and occasionally backlash. One instance of this was when Google was asked to remove certain content from its searches as well as links to non-PRC websites. Google was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, while domestic search engines that gave just as inappropriate search results were completely ignored, and the Chinese Central Television aired an interview with a "student" about Google. The "student" claimed that Google was corrupting him and his classmates, but it was later discovered that the interviewee was actually an intern at CCTV. This sparked outrage online and led to hackers releasing the interviewee's private information online. [6]


Many western countries have the ability the freedom to speak and write freely, but in recent years it has become more important to censor when dealing with sensitive issues such as religion. In some cases where the release of inaccurate information has the potential to cause disruptive results, it may be ideal to withhold such controversial information. If censorship can protect and respect religious beliefs through censorship, then it may be the right option to choose. However, religion has often been used as a tool to speak out against censorship. The use of censorship could also be used to protect individuals from increased scrutiny because of their religious beliefs. For example, in the Presidential Election of 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was under heavy scrutiny because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There was a documentary titled "A Mormon President: Joseph Smith and the Mormon Quest for the White House" directed toward Romney's campaign in relation to his faith.


Morally questionable content is often censored to protect the interests of families and children. Such content may include obscene language, material that shows violence, or sexual content. However, there are often ratings and other markers that can indicate to the viewer that such content is considered objectionable or distasteful. For example, movies in the United States often have rankings of one or two letters that indicate what kinds of content one can expect to see in a particular movie. For example, 'G' stands for General Audiences and indicates that the material is suitable for all ages. As the rankings grow, so do the warnings urging parents to take precaution in allowing children to view the material. The last rating is 'NC-17 -- Adults Only', in which children are not admitted. These ratings are given out by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In the United States, there are similar ratings given to television shows, which are a part of the Television Parental Guidelines system.

Other times, censorship is used to protect the morals, values, and traditions of a particular culture or way of life. People sometimes argue that the media is responsible for introducing new cultures and ideas to the masses. This can be seen as a threat to customs of the local people in the community. While some people agree with this statement, others rely on the media to learn and better understand the values and traditions of other cultures.

Copyright Protection

The United States recognizes the Berne Convention, which states that all works should be automatically copyrighted, and abides by the Buenos Aires convention, which requires copyrighted material to have a copyright notice. The first United States copyright law was enacted in 1790, and it ran for fourteen years, plus one fourteen-year-long renewal. A copyright renewal refers to the process of extending a term of copyright to another term before it enters the public domain. This initial copyright law protected the authors of written works like books and maps and didn’t cover music, a medium that sparks many copyright lawsuits today. This may stem from the fact that at this point in time, music was limited to an analog form and was very difficult to reproduce. By 1998, television, movies, and records were protected under the copyright laws in place in the United States. In this year, copyright was increased to run for one hundred and twenty-five years, or the author’s life plus seventy years, and copyright infringement began being criminalized [7]

The current copyright model in the United States protects the publishers and distributors of media by attempting to sanction/censor any transaction other than direct purchase that spreads copies of media. Considering a consumer's perspective in assessing value of media, it stand to reason that less restrictions of copy distribution would increase the maximum price point; if John can only burn his CD onto one computer, why would he pay as much as if he could transfer it between all of his media equipment[8]?

Research is mixed as to whether file sharing suppresses or increases the sale of music.[9]

From an artist's perspective, consider the Hip-Hop boom of the 1990s; the sampling of copyrighted material was integral to the creation of new hip-hop. Without copyright infringement, the music industry would most likely not have had such an array of artists to market and revenue would suffer as a reult[8]. Additionally, artists have a longstanding tradition of freely borrowing each other's work in creating their own[8]. Notable for this practice are Morrisey, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Jarmusch. Considering the mass of creative work that depends on intertextual utilization of source material, looser copyright restrictions, or copyright restrictions designed to enable artists rather than staunchly protecting publisher's exclusive rights to control use, could actually benefit both the creative community and the publishing companies by enabling artists to create more media on their own terms.


Other motivations for censorship, however, may include the moral disapproval of what individuals may do with the information, as opposed to the disapproval of the information itself. For example, information on bomb making is, in itself, non-threatening; however, what individuals may choose to do with this information can be very threatening.

  • Inherently Harmful Access: "This view holds that accessing some content is simply inherently bad" (Censorship 2008 pp. 580) (See also: Kay Mathiesen).
Parody that satirically states the advantages of pornography as a jab at censorship.
  • Instrumentally Harmful Access: Content is censored for the concern that harm to another may be a consequence to unrestricted access to certain information (See also: Kay Mathiesen).
The Anarchist Cookbook is an example of information that may be considered instrumentally harmful.
  • Maps: Many maps, especially online, are censored for military purposes. For example, Google Maps redacts or shows out-dated, images of certain restricted areas of the world.

Should We Censor?

Censorship can be used in varying applications. It can serve to protect people from harmful content, or it can oppress users right to free speech. Several implications exist regarding censorship. The connotation of free speech is generally negative, as it is frequently associated with a restriction on information and knowledge that many consider a basic human right. The result is a paradox. Censorship can protect people, but it can also limit basic freedoms. The balancing act between protecting people from harmful content and overstepping basic human rights proves challenging for governments. This challenge has seen international debate.


Censorship for protection is most common in media. The content in some movies, books, television shows, video games, and other media could be harmful to people due to their age or circumstance. Movies[10], television shows[11], and video games[12] all have rating systems that classify their content by age group based on the types of content presented. The majority of films or other media containing content not considered age-appropriate for certain groups is labeled as such. The practice of censorship is common as well in most K-12 school systems, through which it is generally considered the school's job to keep their students from encountering any inappropriate material on school property.

As a form of protection, censorship is used to classify some types of content according to age restrictions. This kind of content classification allows people to express what the intended audience is before it makes it into the hands of anyone in the community. Popular everyday examples of this sort of censorship are ratings on video games. A game rated M for Mature can only be purchased by individuals ages 17+. On a similar note, censorship of confidential information such as a business's private information can allow stakeholders to reserve information that should not be seen by the public. In that case, it can protect personal privacy and identities of certain persons who are considered to be "at risk."[13]


However, some contend that censorship and redaction of certain information that is deemed not fit for the public eye can bring up issues of Information Transparency. This is not good for the case of the business person attempting to earn the trust and loyalty of his or her customers. The customer may not find it easy or possible to trust the business person to make a fair deal, if the company cannot be trusted as a whole to not hide information from the public.

Governments have been accused of censoring information in the name of maintaining civil order and protecting citizens. The government of Pakistan censors text messages that express an anti-government sentiment. This example violates the ethical use of censorship because it is in violation basic civil rights. In Cuba, the government censors the use of the Internet. People's browsing histories are monitored and censored such that only pro-government content is allowed to be made publicly available. Censorship should not be used to impede and stifle human expression by violating a person's basic civil rights including freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Ethical Implications

While some people agree that censorship is wrong as a whole, often people will agree that some level of censorship is ethical and necessary. The ethical dilemmas arise when deciding on acceptable degrees of censorship. There is often a fine line between freedom of speech and security and privacy. More often than not, censorship for what certain groups would consider a good reason can seem equally unethical based on what is being restricted.


The discussion of censoring content stems from the dilemma of how much information is too much information. Furthermore, since there are various forms of censorship, it is difficult to say what is appropriate to censor and what is not. Government censorship is often forceful and heavy-handed; when the state has a "monopoly on power," its censorship is effective to a more robust extent than an individual's attempts[14]. However, while government censorships may be more effective and sweeping, they are not necessarily wholly successful; individuals still have the power to access banned content [14]. The only true way to silence and censor individuals is to completely prohibit content and restrict access on all fronts[14]. Other methods, such as creating public stigma around content or making it more expensive, simply limits access rather than outright prohibiting it and does not, as a result, create truly successful censorship[14].

Protecting children from disturbing content such as violence, obscenities, and inappropriate sexual content is ethically important. However, if one replaces or removes content that another has produced or is forbidden from discussing certain topics because they are too controversial, then freedom of speech is not maintained and civil liberties are violated. Ethical censorship is that which protects an individual or group from harm without interfering with a person's civil liberties. This is not to mention that many censorship techniques (such as the covering of obscenities in music) might not function well enough to mask the intended message.

Unethical censorship is that which disregards freedom of speech without considering the civil liberties of all parties involved. For example, in the case of WikiLeaks, it was maintained by the founders of the site that destroying the government's censorship was an acceptable action even if it would put certain individuals' lives at risk. In this case, it is difficult to determine whether or not the censorship is ethical. Withholding valuable information from the public is widely considered unethical. However, it also unethical to put people's lives at risk. Therefore, censorship should only be used to better the community and protect people from harm. It should not be used to avoid controversial issues or withhold useful information.


Ethical dilemmas arise when determining the allocation of authority to censor. In the context of offline media, such as in movies, magazines, newspapers, or books, the authority of censorship falls into the hands of the producer. While in the online world though, it is much more difficult to determine the responsibilities. Some argue that censorship is only ethical if Internet censorship is restricted to a personal level. One person or group censoring information from another person or group is considered to be a violation of the other party's civil liberties. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech and expression. It does not, however, protect against obscene speech, slander, etc. Many find it unethical to allow children access to obscene material online. For this reason, many things are censored on the Internet such as pornography for all age groups as it is hard to check a person's age online. The idea of Internet Censorship is supported by the government, on June 26, 1997, as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Internet was fully protected by the first amendment to the US Constitution. In order to maintain an ethical environment on the Internet, it is the individual's responsibilities to monitor him or herself. It is up to the individual to determine what information is false or obscene for his or herself. In the online environment, it is unethical to allow one entity to censor everything. The responsibility to decide what censorship is ethical is that of organizations and individuals and relies on the context of the censorship.


In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to free speech, but free speech is not protected on private property. Social media is considered private property, as it is owned by corporations. Social media companies, such as Facebook, must create their own regulations regarding what users can and cannot post on their sites. Social media sites are hesitant to regulate on their sites because users argue for free speech.[15] Censorship angers some social media users who believe they should be able to post whatever they want and argue that if other users cannot handle what they see online they should leave the site. However, when people are targeted within online spaces, they feel less safe and are less likely to speak out. Therefore, not censoring incivility is the same as limiting free speech. Incivility disrupts democratic conversation online.[16]


In the United States, the suppression or limitation of what is claimed to be an obscenity raises issues of rights to freedom of speech and of the press protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, but the courts still need to determine whether the material in question in each case is in fact obscene. [17]

Roth V. United States (1957)

Samuel Roth was charged with violating a federal obscenity statute after selling a publication called the “American Aphrodite”. This publication contained nude pictures and erotic literature deemed to be "obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy". Using the Hicklin test, the judges affirmed the conviction in a 6-3 vote, re-establishing that obscenity was not protected under the 1st Amendment and that Congress could ban material, "utterly without redeeming social importance," or in other words, "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest." [18] This case would replace the Hicklin’s case, establishing a more liberal interpretation of what was obscene in order to not overreach the definition of obscenity. The Roth test would be applied in future cases to determine whether the material was obscene or not. [19]

Miller V. California (1973)

In 1971, Marvin Miller, owner of a California mail-order business that sold pornographic films and literature, sent out brochures that contained graphic images. After they were opened by a mother and owner of a business in California, the authorities were called and Miller was arrested and charged with violating California Penal Code. The statute was made based on two Supreme Court cases Memoirs v. Massachusetts and Roth v. United States. Miller was tried by jury in the Superior Court of Orange County and found guilty. Miller appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, arguing the national standard for obscenity should have been applied. Matthew's case but was rejected. The case was brought to the Supreme Court after Miller applied for an informal written order seeking judicial review or Certiorari. The Supreme Court ruled that the sale and distribution of the obscene material was not protected under the First Amendment and went on to try and define obscenity by forming three new criteria:

  • whether the average person, applying contemporary "community standards", would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • whether the work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law (the syllabus of the case mentions only sexual conduct, but excretory functions are explicitly mentioned on page 25 of the majority opinion); and
  • whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. This is known as the SLAPS test.

Communications Decency Act

Enacted in 1996 under the Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Communications Decency Act is considered the first attempt by the US to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. It attempted to regulate “indecent” material that could be harmful to children, and “obscene” material in cyberspace.[20] It imposed criminal sanctions on anyone who knowingly:

  • uses an interactive computer service to send to a specific person or persons under 18 years of age
  • uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs
  • transmission of materials that are “obscene or indecent” to persons known to be under 18

Reno V. ACLU

The constitutionality of the CDA was challenged in 1997, during the Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union. The court held that the Act violated the First Amendment because its regulations were too broad that it became a restriction on free speech. The court believed the Act failed to clearly define “indecent” communications.


The Child Online Protection Act was Congress's second attempt at criminalizing distribution of what it considered pornography, including simulated pornography and artwork on the Internet. It defined material harmful to minors as: COPA enforced penalties of a $50,000 fine and six months in prison for the posting for "commercial purposes" of content on the internet that is "harmful to minors". Material that is "harmful to minors" is defined as: "any communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording, writing, or other matter of any kind that is obscene or that—

  • the average person, applying contemporary ‘’community standards’’, would find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest;
  • depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast; and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

Ashcroft V. ACLU (2002)

Ashcroft V. ACLU was a 2002 United States Supreme Court case involving the American Civil Liberties Union and the United States government regarding the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The judges concluded that like the Communications Decency Act, COPA "effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another”. [21] The Court of Appeals held that the statute’s use of “contemporary community standards” to identify materials that are “harmful to minors” was a serious flaw in the wording of the Act. Justice Stevens claimed, “In the context of the Internet, … community standards become a sword, rather than a shield. If a prurient appeal is offensive in a puritan village, it may be a crime to post it on the World Wide Web”. [22]

See Also

External Links


  1. lastname, firstname · (date) · Censorship – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary · merriam-webster.com · 04-20-2018
  2. Wikipedia: Censorship http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship
  3. "Censorship and Access to Expression" The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, 2008. [1]
  4. "Censorship in the United States" George Anastaplo, Encyclopedia Britannica.[2]
  5. Irum Saeed Abbasi and Laila Al-Sharqi. "Media censorship: Freedom versus responsibility." Journal of Law and Conflict Resolution 7.4 (2015): 21 - 24, http://www.academicjournals.org/journal/JLCR/article-abstract/DCFC77E54997
  6. "Regulators Target Google for Pornographic Content, CCTV Airs Fake Interview, Netizens React.", China Digital Times (CDT), 23 June 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
  7. U.S. Copyright Office, (n.d.). United states copyright office: A brief introduction and history. Retrieved from website: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1a.html
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Snapper, John. The Matter of Plagarism: What, Why, and If? in The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Himma, K. and Tavani, H., eds. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience. 2008.
  9. Oberholzer-Gee, Felix & Koleman Strumpf, "The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales: An Empirical Analysis." Journal of Political Economy 115 (2007): 1-42.
  10. "WHAT: GUIDE TO RATINGS" filmRatings.com (2017) http://filmratings.com/what.html
  11. "ABOUT THE TV RATINGS AND V-CHIP" The TV Parental Guidelines (2017) http://www.tvguidelines.org/.
  12. "ESRB RATINGS GUIDE" Entertainment Software Rating Board (2017) http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.aspx
  13. 19 CFR 201.6 - Confidential business information. Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute (2003) https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/19/201.6
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Mathiesen, Kay. “Censorship and Access to Expression,” in Himma and Tavani (2008), pp. 573-588. [16 pages]
  15. Stein, Joel. “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet.” Time, Time, 18 Aug. 2016, https://time.com/4457110/internet-trolls/
  16. Papacharissi, Zizi. "Democracy Online: Civility, Politeness, and the Democratic Potential of Online Political Discussion Groups." New Media & Society 6.2 (2004): 259-283.
  17. Wikipedia: United States obscenity law https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_obscenity_law
  18. Wikipedia: Roth v. United States https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roth_v._United_States
  19. "Roth V. United States: A New Definition Of Obscenity". Shmoop.com. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017
  20. "Communications Decency Act (CDA) | United States [1996]". Encyclopedia Britannica. N. p., 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
  21. Singel, Ryan. "Child Online Protection Act Overturned" ABCNews (2008) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/AheadoftheCurve/story?id=5428228&page=1
  22. Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union case (2004) https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/542/656/concurrence.html

(back to index)