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Censorship is the editing, removing, or otherwise changing speech and other forms of human expression. In some cases, it is exercised by governing bodies but it is always and continuously carried out by the mass media. The visible motive of censorship is often to stabilize, improve, or persuade the societal group that the censoring organization would have control over. It is most commonly applied to acts that occur in public circumstances, and most formally involves the suppression of ideas by criminalizing or regulating expression. Discussion of censorship often includes less formal means of controlling perceptions by excluding various ideas from mass communication. What is censored may range from specific words to entire concepts and it may be influenced by value systems; but the most common reasons for censoring ("omitting") information are the particular interests of the distribution companies of news and entertainment, their owners, and their commercial and political connections.

While humankind remains self-centered and unable to develop a world of peace and harmonious relationships for all, censorship continues to be controversial yet necessary. Restricting freedom of speech violates the foundation of democracy, yet the imposition of offensive material on the public also violates their rights. Governments should not hide important information from their citizens, yet the public release of sensitive military or other materials endangers those citizens should such material fall into the hands of enemies.

Wieczór Wrocławia" - Daily newspaper of Wrocław, People's Republic of Poland, March 20-21-21, 1981, with censor intervention on first and last pages — under the headlines "Co zdarzyło się w Bydgoszczy?" (What happened in Bydgoszcz?) and "Pogotowie strajkowe w całym kraju" (Country-wide strike alert). The censor had removed a section regarding the strike alert; hence the workers in the printing house had decided to also blank out a second official propaganda section. The right-hand page also includes a hand-written confirmation of that decision by the local "Solidarność" (Solidarity) Trade Union.


"Censorship" comes from the Latin word censor. In Rome, the censor had two duties: To count the citizens and to supervise their morals. The term "census" is also derived from this word.

An early published reference to the term "whitewash" dates back to 1762 in a Boston Evening Post article. In 1800, the word was used publicly in a political context, when a Philadelphia Aurora editorial said that "if you do not whitewash President Adams speedily, the Democrats, like swarms of flies, will bespatter him all over, and make you both as speckled as a dirty wall, and as black as the devil."[1]

The word "sanitization" is a euphemism commonly used in the political context of propaganda to refer to the doctoring of information that might otherwise be perceived as incriminating, self-contradictory, controversial, or damaging. Censorship, as compared to acts or policies of sanitization, more often refers to a publicly set standard, not a privately set standard. However, censorship is often alleged when an essentially private entity, such as a corporation, regulates access to information in a communication forum that serves a significant share of the public. Official censorship might occur at any jurisdictional level within a state or nation that otherwise represents itself as opposed to formal censorship.

Selected global history

Censorship has occurred all over the world, and has been evident since recorded history in numerous societies. As noted, the word "censor" derives from the Roman duty to supervise the morals of the public.

Great Britain

One of the earliest known forms of censorship in Great Britain was the British Obscenity Laws. The conviction in 1727 of Edmund Curll for the publication of Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock under the common law offense of disturbing the King's peace was the first conviction for obscenity in Great Britain, and set a legal precedent for other convictions.[2]British copyright laws also gave the Crown the permission to license publishing. Without government approval, printing was not allowed. For a court or other governmental body to prevent a person from speaking or publishing before the act has taken place is sometimes called prior restraint, which may be viewed as worse than punishment received after someone speaks, as in libel suits.


The Russian Empire had a branch within the government devoted to censorship (among other tasks) known as the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty's Own Chancellery. The Third Section and Gendarmes became associated primarily with the suppression of any liberal ideas as well as strict censorship on printed press and theater plays. Although only three periodicals were ever banned outright, most were severely edited. It was keen to repress "dangerous" western liberal ideas, such as constitutional monarchy or even republicanism. Throughout the reign of Nicholas I, thousands of citizens were kept under strict surveillance.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union also later engaged in censorship as Lenin believed literature and art could be used for ideological and political purposes.[3] Under the Soviet regime there were a number of organizations responsible for censorship. The Main Administration for Safeguarding State Secrets in the Press (also known as Glavlit) was in charge of censoring all publications and broadcasting for state secrets. There was also Goskomizdat, Goskino, Gosteleradio, and Goskomstat, which were in charge of censoring television, film, radio, and printed matter.

United States

During World War II, The American Office of Censorship, an emergency wartime agency, heavily censored reporting. On December 19, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8985, which established the Office of Censorship and conferred on its director the power to censor international communications in "his absolute discretion." However, the censorship was not limited to reporting. "Every letter that crossed international or U.S. territorial borders from December 1941 to August 1945 was subject to being opened and scoured for details."[4]

East Germany

Following World War II, the Soviet controlled East Germany censored anything it could. Censors scrutinized manuscripts for their socialist ideology and recommended changes to the author if necessary. Afterwards, the whole work was again analyzed for ideology hostile to the current government by a committee of the publishing company. There existed two official government arms for censorship: Hauptverwaltung Verlage und Buchhandel (HV), and the Bureau for Copyright (Büro für Urheberrechte). The HV determined the degree of censorship and the way of publishing and marketing the work. The Bureau for Copyright appraised the work, and then decided if the publication would be allowed to be published in foreign countries as well as the GDR, or only in the GDR.


Modern Iran practices a good deal of censorship over the printed press and the internet.[5] With the election of Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, and the start of the 2nd of Khordad Reform Movement, a clampdown occurred that only worsened after the election of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Iran is now considered to be one of the most repressive Internet-censorship regimes in the world. Many bloggers, online activists, and technical staff have faced jail terms, harassment, and abuse. In November 2006, Iran was one of 13 countries labeled "enemies of the internet" by activist group Reporters Without Borders.[6] The government of Iran required all Iranians to register their web sites with the Ministry of art and culture.

Subject matter

The rationale for censorship is different for various types of data censored. These are the main types:

Educational censorship

The content of school textbooks is often the issue of debate, since their target audience is young people, and the term "whitewashing" is the one commonly used to refer to selective removal of critical or damaging evidence or comment. The reporting of military atrocities in history is extremely controversial, as in the case of the Nanking Massacre, the Holocaust, and the Winter Soldier Investigation of the Vietnam War. The representation of every society's flaws or misconduct is typically downplayed in favor of a more nationalist, favorable, or patriotic view.

In the context of secondary-school education, the way facts and history are presented greatly influences the interpretation of contemporary thought, opinion, and socialization. One argument for censoring the type of information disseminated is based on the inappropriate quality of such material for the young. The use of the "inappropriate" distinction is in itself controversial, as it can lead to a slippery slope enforcing wider and more politically-motivated censorship.

Moral censorship

Moral censorship is the means by which any material that contains what the censor deems to be of questionable morality is removed. The censoring body disapproves of what it deems to be the values behind the material and limits access to it. Pornography, for example, is often censored under this rationale. In another example, graphic violence resulted in the censorship of the 1932 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" movie entitled Scarface originally completed in 1930.

Military censorship

Book burning in 1933 in Berlin, Germany

Military censorship is the process of keeping military intelligence and tactics confidential and away from the enemy. This is used to counter espionage, which is the process of gleaning military information. Additionally, military censorship may involve a restriction on information or media coverage that can be released to the public, such as in Iraq, where the U.S. government has restricted the photographing or filming of dead soldiers or their caskets and its subsequent broadcast in the U.S. This is done to avoid public reaction similar to that which occurred during the Vietnam War or the Iran Hostage Crisis.

In wartime, explicit censorship is carried out with the intent of preventing the release of information that might be useful to an enemy. Typically it involves keeping times or locations secret, or delaying the release of information (such as an operational objective) until it is of no possible use to enemy forces. The moral issues here are often seen as somewhat different, as release of tactical information usually presents a greater risk of casualties among one's own forces and could possibly lead to loss of the overall conflict. During World War I, letters written by British soldiers would have to go through the process of being censored. This consisted of officers going through letters with a black marker and crossing out anything which might compromise operational secrecy before the letter was sent. The World War II catchphrase "Loose lips sink ships" was used as a common justification to exercise official wartime censorship and encourage individual restraint when sharing potentially sensitive information.

Political censorship

Political censorship occurs when governments conceal secrets from their citizens. The logic is to prevent the free expression needed to revolt. Democracies do not officially approve of political censorship but often endorse it privately. Any dissent against the government is thought to be a “weakness” for the enemy to exploit. Campaign tactics are also often kept secret, leading to events such as the Watergate scandal.

A well-known example of sanitization policies comes from the USSR under Stalin, where publicly used photographs were often altered to remove people whom Stalin had condemned to execution. Though past photographs may have been remembered or kept, this deliberate and systematic alteration of history in the public mind is seen as one of the central themes of Stalinism and totalitarianism. More recently, the official exclusion of television crews from locales where coffins of military dead were in transit has been cited as a form of censorship. This particular example obviously represents an incomplete or failed form of censorship, as numerous photographs of these coffins have been printed in newspapers and magazines.

Religious censorship

Religious censorship is the means by which any material objectionable to a certain faith is removed. This often involves a dominant religion forcing limitations on less dominant ones. Alternatively, one religion may shun the works of another when they believe the content is not appropriate for their faith.

Also, some religious groups have at times attempted to block the teaching of evolution in schools, as evolutionary theory appears to contradict their religious beliefs. The teaching of sex education in school and the inclusion of information about sexual health and contraceptive practices in school textbooks is another area where suppression of information occurs.

Corporate censorship

Corporate censorship is the process by which editors in corporate media outlets intervene to halt the publishing of information that portrays their business or business partners in a negative light. Privately owned corporations in the "business" of reporting the news also sometimes refuse to distribute information due to the potential loss of advertiser revenue or shareholder value which adverse publicity may bring.


Censorship can be explicit, as in laws passed to prevent select positions from being published or propagated (such as the People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Australia, and the United States), or it can be implicit, taking the form of intimidation by government, where people are afraid to express or support certain opinions for fear of losing their jobs, their position in society, their credibility, or their lives. The latter form is similar to McCarthyism and is prevalent in a number of countries, including the United States.

Through government action

Censorship is regarded among a majority of academics in the Western world as a typical feature of dictatorships and other authoritarian political systems. Democratic nations are represented, especially among Western government, academic, and media commentators, as having somewhat less institutionalized censorship, and as instead promoting the importance of freedom of speech. The former Soviet Union maintained a particularly extensive program of state-imposed censorship. The main organ for official censorship in the Soviet Union was the Chief Agency for Protection of Military and State Secrets, generally known as the Glavlit, its Russian acronym. The Glavlit handled censorship matters arising from domestic writings of just about any kind—even beer and vodka labels. Glavlit censorship personnel were present in every large Soviet publishing house or newspaper; the agency employed some 70,000 censors to review information before it was disseminated by publishing houses, editorial offices, and broadcasting studios. No mass medium escaped Glavlit's control. All press agencies and radio and television stations had Glavlit representatives on their editorial staffs.

Some thinkers understand censorship to include other attempts to suppress points of view or the exploitation of negative propaganda, media manipulation, spin, disinformation or "free speech zones." These methods tend to work by disseminating preferred information, by relegating open discourse to marginal forums, and by preventing other ideas from obtaining a receptive audience.

Suppression of access to the means of dissemination of ideas can function as a form of censorship. Such suppression has been alleged to arise from the policies of governmental bodies, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States of America, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC in Canada, newspapers that refuse to run commentary the publisher disagrees with, lecture halls that refuse to rent themselves out to a particular speaker, and individuals who refuse to finance such a lecture. The omission of selected voices in the content of stories also serves to limit the spread of ideas, and is often called censorship. Such omission can result, for example, from persistent failure or refusal by media organizations to contact criminal defendants (relying solely on official sources for explanations of crime). Censorship has been alleged to occur in such media policies as blurring the boundaries between hard news and news commentary, and in the appointment of allegedly biased commentators, such as a former government attorney, to serve as anchors of programs labeled as hard news but comprising primarily anti-criminal commentary.

In the media

The focusing of news stories to exclude questions that might be of interest to some audience segments, such as the avoidance of reporting cumulative casualty rates among citizens of a nation that is the target or site of a foreign war, is often described as a form of censorship. Favorable representation in news or information services of preferred products or services, such as reporting on leisure travel and comparative values of various machines instead of on leisure activities such as arts, crafts, or gardening has been described by some as a means of censoring ideas about the latter in favor of the former.

Self censorship is censorship imposed on the media in a free market by market or cultural forces rather than a censoring authority. This may occur when it is more profitable for the media to give a biased view. Examples would include near hysterical and scientifically untenable stances against nuclear power, genetic engineering, and recreational drugs being distributed because scare stories sell.

Overcoming censorship

Since the invention of the printing press, distribution of limited production leaflets has often served as an alternative to dominant information sources. Technological advances in communication, such as the Internet, have overcome some censorship. Throughout history, mass protests have also served as a method for resisting unwanted impositions.

Censorship in literature

Censorship through government action is taken to a ridiculous extent and lampooned in the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. The book revolves around the adventure of a "fireman" whose job is to burn books, because the only permitted educational outlet for people in his dystopian society is state controlled television. The novel's society has strongly anti-intellectual overtones, which Bradbury was attempting to prevent.

Censorship also figures prominently in George Orwell's novel 1984. That novel's main character works for the "Ministry of Truth," which is responsible for disseminating the state's version of current events and history. Smith's position requires him to edit history books to keep them in line with the prevailing political mood. Also prominent in the book are the "Thought Police" who arrest and punish citizens who even entertain subversive thoughts. 1984 also highlights the common connection between censorship and propaganda.

Censorship and Society

Censorship presents a danger to an open, democratic world. Most countries claiming to be democratic abide by some standard of publicly releasing materials that are not security risks. This promotes an atmosphere of trust and participation in government, which is a healthier state than the suspicion experienced by those forced to live under censorious, unfree regimes. Freedom of speech has come to be seen as a hallmark of a modern society, with pressures for emerging countries to adopt such standards. Modernizing pressure has forced the opening of many formerly closed societies, such as Russia and China.[7]

Despite its many disreputable uses, censorship also serves a more benign end. Many argue that censorship is necessary for a healthy society and in some cases may be for the protection of the public. One such example is in the broadcasting of explicit material, be it violent or sexual in nature. While it may be argued that broadcasters should be free to broadcast such items, equally, parents should also be free to have their children watch television without the fear that they will see inappropriate material. To this end, societies have developed watchdog agencies to determine decency regulations. In America, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) serves this purpose. Two famous recent cases involving the FCC are the broadcasting of nudity during the Super Bowl and of the unedited Steven Spielberg move Saving Private Ryan. In the first case, the FCC levied great fines on Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for broadcasting a slip of nudity.[8] In the second case, the FCC warned that fines could be forthcoming if the ABC stations aired the violent film uncut.[9]

Another benign use of censorship is that of information that is secret for national security purposes. Governments maintain a level of secrecy in regards to much pertaining to the national defense so as not to reveal weaknesses to any security risks. Determining the balance between transparent government and safe government is a difficult task. In the United States, there exist a series of "sunshine laws" that require making available to the public government documents once they are no longer vital to national security.


  1. Gina Misiroglu, The Handy American Government Answer Book: How Washington, Politics and Elections Work (Visible Ink Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1578596393).
  2. "The Obscenity of Censorship: A History of Indecent People and Lacivious Publications." The Erotica Bibliophile. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  3. Library of Congress, "Attacks on Intelligentsia: Censorship."
  4. Louis Fiset, "Return to Sender: U.S. Censorship of Enemy Alien Mail in World War II", Prologue Magazine 33(1) (2001). Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  5. Peter Feuilherade, "Iran's banned press turns to the net" BBC.com, August 9, 2002. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  6. Robert Tait, "Censorship fears rise as Iran blocks access to top websites." The Guardian, December 3, 2006. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  7. Paul Festa, "Software rams great firewall of China." ZDNet, April 16, 2003. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  8. Apologetic Jackson says 'costume reveal' went awry CNN, February 3, 2004. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  9. ABC affiliate pulling 'Private Ryan' CNN, November 11, 2004. Retrieved July 9, 2020.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abbott, Randy. "A Critical Analysis of the Library-Related Literature Concerning Censorship in Public Libraries and Public School Libraries in the United States During the 1980s" in Project for degree of Education Specialist. University of South Florida, 1987.
  • Burress, Lee. Battle of the Books. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1989.
  • Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. 1997. ISBN 0415915872
  • Foucault, Michel. Philosophy, Culture: interviews and other writings 1977-1984. New York/London: Routledge, 1988. ISBN 0415900824
  • Hansen, Terry. The Missing Times: News media complicity in the UFO cover-up. 2000. ISBN 0738836125
  • Hendrikson, Leslie. "Library Censorship: ERIC Digest No. 23" in ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education. Boulder, Colorado, 1985.
  • Hoffman, Frank. Intellectual Freedom and Censorship. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 0810821451
  • Marek, Kate. Schoolbook Censorship USA. 1987.
  • Misiroglu, Gina. The Handy American Government Answer Book: How Washington, Politics and Elections Work. Visible Ink Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1578596393
  • O'Reilly, Robert C. and Larry Parker. 1982. "Censorship or Curriculum Modification?" Paper presented at a School Boards Association, 1982.
  • Small, Robert C. "Preparing the New English Teacher to Deal with Censorship, or Will I Have to Face it Alone?." Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, 1987.
  • Terry, John David II. "Censorship: Post Pico" in School Law Update, 1986.
  • World Book Encyclopedia, volume 3 (C-Ch), pages 345, 346.


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