The term censorship refers to the suppression, banning, or deletion of speech, writing, or images that are considered to be indecent, obscene, or otherwise objectionable. Censorship becomes a civil rights issue when a government or other entity with authority, suppresses ideas, or the expression of ideas, information, and self. In the U.S., censorship has been debated for decades, as some seek to protect the public from offensive materials, and others seek to protect the public’s rights to free speech and expression. To explore this concept, consider the following censorship definition.

Definition of Censorship


  1. The act of censoring
  2. The office or authority of a censor


380 B.C.          Greek Philosopher Plato

What is Censorship

The word censorship is from the Latin censere, which is “to give as one’s opinion, to assess.” In Roman times, censors were public officials who took census counts, as well as evaluating public principles and moralities. Societies throughout history have taken on the belief that the government is responsible for shaping the characters of individuals, many engaging in censorship to that end.

In his text The Republic, ancient Greek philosopher Plato makes a systematic case for the need for censorship in the arts. Information in the ancient Chinese society was tightly controlled, a practice that persists in some form today. Finally, many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, have historically banned literature felt to be contrary to the teachings of the church.

Censorship in America

Many of America’s laws have their origins in English law. In the 1700s, both countries made it their business to censor speech and writings concerning sedition, which are actions promoting the overthrowing of the government, and blasphemy, which is sacrilege or irreverence toward God. The idea that obscenity should be censored didn’t gain serious favor until the mid-1800s. The courts in both countries, throughout history, have worked to suppress speech, writings, and images on these issues.

As time went on, contention arose over just what should be considered “obscene.” Early English law defined obscenity as anything that tended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences,” and anything that “might suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, and even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure and libidinous character.” This essentially meant anything that might lead one to have “impure” thoughts. This definition carried over into early American law as well.

However, that definition was vague enough to raise more questions than it answered in many circumstances. These included:

  • Should adults have a right to read or view “adult materials?”
  • When does one legally become an adult?
  • Should adult materials be banned simply because a young person might see them?
  • How would a court judge whether a particular book, when read by a young person, would cause “impure” thoughts?

Censorship in America took a turn in 1957, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that adults cannot be reduced to reading “only what is fit for children,” ruling that it must be considered whether the work was originally meant for children or adults. Still, the Court acknowledged that works that are “utterly without redeeming social importance” can be censored or banned. This left another vague standard for the courts to deal with.

Censorship in America is most commonly a question in the entertainment industry, which is widely influential on the young and old alike. Public entertainment in the form of movies, television, music, and electronic gaming are considered to have a substantial effect on public interest. Because of this, it is subject to certain governmental regulations.

Censorship and the First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits suppression of an individual’s right to free speech, stating “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” This is a principle held dear by those protesting censorship in any form. In the U.S., censorship of obscene materials in entertainment is allowed, in order to protect children from pornography and other offensive things. The problem with government sanctioned censorship is the risk of violating the civil rights of either those producing the materials, or those wishing to view them.

Censorship Example in the Film Industry

The issue of censorship in the film industry has, at times, been quite contentious. In an effort to avoid the censorship issue, while striving to protect children and conform to federal laws, the Motion Picture Association of America (“MPAA”) instituted a self-regulating, voluntary rating system in 1968. In the 1990s, the MPAA updated its rating system, making it easier for parents to determine what is appropriate for their children, based on the children’s ages.

The MPAA rating system has a number of ratings:

Rating Long Title Definition
G General Audiences All ages admitted. Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children.
PG Parental Guidance Suggested Some material may not be suitable for children. Parents urged to give “parental guidance.” May contain some material parents might not like for their young children.
PG-13 Parents Strongly Cautioned Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.
R Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.
NC-17 Adults Only No One 17 and Under Admitted. Clearly adult. Children are not admitted.

Rather than censoring movies or their content by exclusion of content, MCAA ratings are assigned by a board of people who view the movies, who consider such factors as violence, sex, drug use, and language when assigning ratings. The board strives to assign a rating that a majority of parents in the U.S. would give, considering their needs to protect their children.

An X rating was part of the MCAA’s original rating system, and signified that no one under the age of 16 would be allowed, regardless of parental accompaniment. The X rating was replaced by the NC-17 rating in 1990.

Internet Censorship

Internet censorship refers to the suppression of information that can be published to, or viewed on, the internet. While many people enjoy unfettered access to the broad spectrum of information racing across the information highway, others are denied access, or allowed access only to government approved information. Rationales for internet censorship range from a desire to protect children from content that is offensive or inappropriate, to a government’s objective to control its people’s access to world news, opinions, and other information.

In the United States, the First Amendment affords the people some protection of their right to freely access the internet, and of the things they post to the web. Because of this, there is very little government-mandated “filtering” of information that originates in the U.S. The issue of censorship of certain content, especially content that may further terrorism, is constantly debated at the federal government level.

As an example of censorship, the following countries are known for censoring their people’s internet content:

  • North Korea – only about 4% of the people have access to the internet, and the only content allowed is government-controlled.
  • Burma – the government filters the people’s emails, and blocks access to any sites or information exposing human rights violations in the country.
  • Saudi Arabia – the government blocks nearly half a million websites, especially those that discuss religious, social, or political topics that conflict with the beliefs of the monarchy.
  • Iran – the government censors information coming into, and going out of, the nation. Bloggers are required to register with the Ministry of Art and Culture. Any who express opinions contrary to those of the governmental leaders are harassed and put in jail.
  • China – the government enforces the harshest program of internet censorship in the world. While users have access to some form of internet, their searches are filtered, sites are blocked, and searches on such issues as Taiwan independence, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or other controversial issues to sites that offer information that is more flattering to the Communist Party.

Landmark Ruling on Censorship of Magazine Sales

In the mid-1960s, Sam Ginsberg, who owned Sam’s Stationery and Luncheonette on Long Island, was charged with selling “girlie” magazines to a 16-year old boy, which was in violation of New York state law. Ginsberg was tried in the Nassau County District Court, without a jury, and found guilty. The judge found that the magazines contained pictures which, by failing to cover the female buttocks and breasts with an opaque covering, were harmful to minors. He stated that the photos appealed to the “prurient, shameful or morbid interest of minors,” and that the images were patently offensive to standards held by the adult community regarding what was suitable for minors.

Ginsberg was denied the right to appeal his convictions to the New York Court of Appeals, at which time he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, on the basis that the state of New York had no authority to define two separate classes of people (minors and adults), with respect to what is harmful. In addition, Ginsberg argued that it was easy to mistake a young person’s age, and the law makes no requirement for how much effort a shop owner must put into determining age before selling magazines intended for adult viewing. The Court did not agree, holding that Ginsberg might be acquitted on the grounds of an “honest mistake,” only if he had made “a reasonable bonafide attempt to ascertain the true age of such a minor.” The conviction was upheld.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appeal – A legal proceeding in which a legal decision is taken to a higher court for review.
  • Deprave – Morally bad or debased, corrupt.
  • Monarchy – A system of government controlled by one person, usually a king or queen.

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