Research Review of Censorship: History and International Overview

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The burning of books, cover ups of tragedies, and the muting of other points of view. These actions are frequent, oppressive and yet sometimes necessary. Censorship - the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security- is very prevalent in society and affects a big portion of your everyday life. Because of this, it is important to truly understand censorship, the history of it, when it crosses the line into personal freedoms, and what it means for our society and life today.

Before going into this project, I already had a good overall knowledge of censorship in part because of how prevalent it is in American culture and history. I’d bet that we all at one point or another experienced censorship, whether it be on a large scale such as the cover up of a government scandal or just your parents refusing to let you watch a certain kind of movie or read a certain book. The sheer broadness of censorship as a topic makes it incredibly difficult to write an all-encompassing paper on it, so first I will focus on the history and evolution of censorship in America contrasted with censorship in different countries.

Even though the focus is on America, it’s important to realize that censorship laws and the defiance of those laws really only started picking up a little after the mid sixteen-hundreds when the nobles became worried that, even though the rapid growth of newspapers could represent a huge improvement of information sources for the literate peoples of Europe, it also increased the chance that unlimited access to information could be harmful to society and public morals, particularly in times of war or internal crisis. Thus the Licensing Act of 1662 was enforced in Britain until after the Great Plague of 1665. In Germany, the press was heavily censored during the Thirty Years' War, through small things, such as, trade restrictions and lack of paper for printing.

This type of censoring stays strong all through the 1800’s were the arrest and prosecution of journalists and suppression of newspapers within Europe was happening left and right. This was paralleled in the United States in 1798 when John Adams signing a bill making it illegal to criticize a government official, this act was soon undone in 1800 when the next president took office. Following the American timeline to Anthony Comstock in 1873, who passed a set of laws now known as the ‘Comstock laws’ which prohibit the publication and distribution of any “book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character…” promoting or incentivizing abortion or discouraging conception. Even though a good majority of the public saw this as a good thing, and they did, at the time, argue it to be a just use of censorship, it clearly invades the territory of freedom of expression and people's ability to voice their own opinion. Margaret Sanger and a handful of others slowly started repealing and changing these laws from 1918 through 1936.

Authors, artists, and directors fear censorship because it can cause their works to become, at best, completely removed the public light and, at worst, have the creator of the work be scrutinized and removed from the field. That is why in 1930 a majority of film distributors agreed on a code heavily restricting violence, sex, and profanity. However, the code, known as the Hays Code, also strictly banned portrayals of interracial or same-sex relationships, as well as any content that was deemed anti-religious or anti-Christian. This set upon code was followed up until 1968 when the threat of government enforced censorship became much less of a concern.

Skipping ahead to 1996 when the Communications decency act was attempted to be passed, reprimanding anyone who '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.', however, that bill was quickly struck down within a year and a new revised draft of the bill started getting pushed almost immediately after. Courts held the bill at a standstill until 2009 when the bill was ultimately shut down because the courts argued that it infringed on peoples first amendment rights.

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The First Amendment has been the greatest obstacle for the government or groups who try to enforce censorship, however some countries and civilizations don’t have this barrier so the people in power have complete freedom to restrict and control information and ideas throughout their country or district. Take for instance, China. China has incredibly strict censorship laws that restrict internet access, freedom of speech, and the knowledge of some parts of China's history. One example of this is the censorship of historical writings about the Cultural Revolution - a government lead purge of all things that don’t agree with the classic Chinese communist ideals. Although the Chinese government now officially denounces the Cultural Revolution, it does not allow Chinese citizens to present detailed histories of the suffering and brutality that ordinary people sustained during that time. Another major example is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. That day in 1989 is a powerful event showing the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy protests. If you try to as much as search the word Tiananmen on a Chinese based server, you get no results, this type of censorship heavily restricts information, which is the only real way to control a population and make them believe what you want them to believe. Heavily restricting information is the same thing that North Korea does to control it’s populous, that’s how Kim Jong Un and other leaders keep the entire country brainwashed to their points of view and to almost always stay on their side.

The extent of censorship in China goes far beyond what America would deem as acceptable, in China a number of religious texts, publications, and materials are banned or have their distributions artificially limited in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Foreign citizens are also prohibited from attempting to convert someone to one religion or belief in China, and information concerning the treatment of some religious groups is also tightly controlled. Under Chinese law, a minor is forbidden to receive a religious education of any kind. A small spiritual movement, The Falun Gong, is subject to heavy suppression in China, and virtually all religious texts, publications, and websites relating to the group have been banned, along with information on the imprisonment or torture of the followers. Christian Bibles are allowed to be printed in China but only in limited numbers and through a single press. Their sale is also restricted to officially sanctioned churches, with online sales having been recently cracked down upon. Religious literature is not readily available or even tolerated. In January 2016, five people were arrested for simply buying and selling officially forbidden Christian devotionals. They were sentenced to 3-7 years in jail. Along with history and religion China also attempts to control the spread of ideas.

In 2013 the American Political Science Review published an article about an in-depth experiment that analyzed the censorship program in China. The experiment involved using computers from around the world to post comments to social media sites in China, and then seeing which ones got delayed or deleted by the censors. The authors conclude: 'Our central theoretical finding is that, contrary to much research and commentary, the purpose of the censorship program is not to suppress criticism of the state or the Communist Party. Indeed, despite widespread censorship of social media, we find that when the Chinese people write scathing criticisms of their government and its leaders, the probability that their post will be censored does not increase. Instead, we find that the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected.'. This “sleight of hand” type of censorship is dangerous because it’s difficult to fight against censorship is the general community doesn’t even know that it’s happening.

Censorship in China has clearly invaded personal freedoms on multiple occasions, with blocking information, censoring non-violent religious beliefs and manipulating online social media, quieting beliefs and criticisms that the government doesn’t agree with. However, some types of censorship may be beneficial to society. Take for instance, in Sydney Australia, 1991, Wade Frankum went on a shooting rampage in a shopping mall. While investigating Frank after the incident, officials found a large collection of violent literature and video copies of violent films. One of the books in his possession was a well-thumbed copy of American Psycho and although there is no direct evidence that any of the literature in his collection directly lead to the murders, many news outlets proposed that it was because of the book that Wade did those evil deeds. American Psycho has, for a long time, been condemned as misogynistic because it features many gruesome murders of women, and some thought it significant that five of the seven people Frankum killed were women. Even though it is a little bit of a stretch to say that those books and films alone were to blame for Frankums actions, some find it difficult to not see that people reading and consuming literature with twisted and evil ideas may influence their choices in a negative light. Personally however, I believe that even though some portions of art may depict bad people doing awful things, that we shouldn’t mass censor a book for that reason. What we should do is make sure that people realize that the actions in the book are irehensible and that the reader or audience should not take inspiration from it but more see it as a dive into what not to do.

An easier argument to make in favor of censorship is the censoring of sexually explicit material, which has been taken seriously and has resulted in the Miller test, also called the three-prong obscenity test, which is the United States Supreme Court's test for determining whether speech or expression can be labeled obscene, in which case it is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and can be prohibited.

A new, more recent type of censorship has just started to gain more attention, and that’s the censorship of social media. In America, under the 1st Amendment; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Government cannot heavily control or censor free speech. However, private companies don’t have to follow the same rules, and that’s okay, if they’re a private company they can do what they want. But when only a few large companies control almost all of the distribution of different viewpoints and knowledge, it seems wrong to just pick and choose what or who to silence on the whim of a small vocal minority. This type of censorship is dangerous, it looks a lot like the type of control that China has over its own citizens, with someone being able to constrict the sharing of ideas.

The news media censorship in America is different than the censorship in China in one key way, in America, mobs of people on the internet get to decide who to scrutinize or who to silence. Just recently James Gunn, a movie director, had a few past racist tweets were brought to light. In the past actions like these were apologized for and people would move on, but a small internet mob hounded James Gunn and his employer until they fired him. This wasn’t an oddball moment either, internet mobs have gotten countless people fired just because they disagree with some of their past actions. This idea that a group of individuals with no real incentive other than to deal out their own sense of justice can lead to scary mob led society where everything you do could lead to you being socially exiled. And that is the danger of censorship today.

Censorship occurs when the government, a private institution, or an individual regulates or suppresses writing, speech, or any other media for moral, political, or security purposes. Some people support specified forms of content restrictions, such as imposing age limits on media that may be inappropriate for children, while some oppose other forms, such as the suppression of a politically unpopular opinion. In the end, censorship has been going on for all of human existence and will never cease to exist it will only evolve to fit the times so the best we can do is to make sure that censorship doesn’t go too far and to protect the right to our freedom of expression.

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Research Review of Censorship: History and International Overview. (2020, September 04). WritingBros. Retrieved July 25, 2024, from
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