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The History of Censorship

January 25, 2001

"And the Lord God commanded the man, 'You may eat freely of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.'"

- Genesis 2.16-17, The New Oxford Annotated Bible

"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 First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution

Censorship has existed, in one form or another, for as long as human beings have expressed complex thought. One of the earliest examples of a form of censorship was the execution of the Greek thinker Socrates. Socrates was charged with "corrupting the youth of Athens," and drawing them away from the Greek religion. In fact, the word censor comes form the Latin "censere," which means "to count." The first censors were Roman census takers who also had the responsibility of punishing wrongdoers. It was the printing-press, however, that opened the flood-gates of knowledge, and with it, censorship.

Just 37 years after its invention in 1448, the Archbishop of Mainz requested for a collaboration of officials to begin censoring books (McMasters). Three-hundred-and-fifty years later, America declared its freedom from British rule, and in 1791, the most famous amendment to the U. S. Constitution was written. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and expression to all Americans, and makes nearly all forms of government censorship illegal. With this freedom as the very cornerstone of our vaunted democracy, why must we still fight the battle against censorship? As a people, Americans need to realize that censorship does more harm than good; promoting ignorance, intolerance, and taking power away from the individual.

"I thank God, we have not had free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have {them} these hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both."

- Sir William Berkely, Governor of Virginia, in a letter home to England. 1671

Even though America is built upon a foundation of free speech, censorship has been present since the beginning. While censorship can take many forms, historically there have been several main censorship controversies in the U. S. Censorship of obscenity has always been the mainstay of the pro-censorship movement. While the first recorded obscenity trial in the United States took place in 1815, the definition of obscenity has always been somewhat of a mystery. It is sometimes defined as material "without social value," whose "{themes} appeal to prurient interest in sex," and whose "representation of sexual matters {is} an affront to contemporary community standards" (Berger 20). In 1967, the U.S. congress took a close look at the issue of obscenity. Their eventual conclusion was that Congress "should not seek to interfere with the right of adults who wish to do so to read, obtain, or view explicit sexual materials" (Berger 20). They suggested regulation of the sale of such materials to minors and insuring that such materials could not be thrust upon people without their consent through the mail or otherwise. Although their decision seems completely reasonable, it was denounced and rejected by President Nixon and a Senate vote. Despite this rejection, this is mostly the standard for obscenity today, with the government seldom intruding on citizen's private lives. This does not stop the many complaints against material some people regard as obscene, however.

A second important censorship issue is sedition. Sedition is defined as printed defamatory or treasonous statements designed to raise public contempt the government. For example, in 1798, the Sedition Act was signed into law by President John Adams. This Act, First Amendment notwithstanding, made it a crime for anyone to publish remarks critical of Adams' ruling Federalist party. In all, only 11 people were convicted of the crime of sedition before Adams was replaced by Republican president Thomas Jefferson, at which time the law expired, but it is frightening to imagine today's society under the effects of this type of law. Today, citizens are allowed to say almost anything short of direct threats.

Libel, or un-proven defamatory statements about a person, is another important problem arising from censorship. Libel deals mostly with printed statements, and is usually a freedom of press issue stemming from the wording of the First Amendment. Offending journalists quote the First Amendment, and contend that the government has no right to interfere with the press in any way. It is quite obvious even to an opponent of censorship, however, that the press should not be able to print completely unfounded and sensationalist lies. As evidenced by the large number of supermarket tabloids in circulation, the government does not interfere with the press, but the individuals slandered are allowed to sue the tabloids.

Pornography, espionage, and repression of student's rights have also been the cause of major censorship-related controversies. Today, the most publicized attacks are against the movie, music, and computer game industries for their often graphic depictions of violence and sex. Despite these renewed efforts by censors, expression is freer now than it has ever been before. There is, however, a dangerous tendency among Americans to be more and more willing to give up freedom of speech.

In a recent survey by the First Amendment Center, fifty-one percent of Americans said the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. Sixty-seven percent said that public remarks against a racial group should not be allowed, and thirty-seven percent said they would support a law banning such speech. Another fifty-four percent said that public speech offensive to a religious group should not be allowed. Eighty-four percent said that people should not be allowed to burn the American flag in protest. Perhaps the most frightening sentiment is this: twenty percent of people said that freedom to worship "was not meant to apply to religious groups the majority of people consider extreme or fringe" (Paulson). While this figure is not astronomical, it is important to keep in mind that the First Amendment guarantees freedom for all people, not just the majority.

"They don't gotta burn the books they just remove 'em..."

- Rage Against the Machine, Bulls on Parade

One of the most prolific examples of censorship today is the banning and challenging of library and school books. A challenge is defined as a formal complaint by a person or group against a specific work, while banning is the actual removal of challenged works. While books are seldom officially "banned" in the U.S., challenges can often result in materials being pulled for "review," especially in the school environment. The most frequent reasons for challenges are offensive language, violence, occult themes, sexual content, and being "unsuited to age group" (American Library Association).

Although the number of reported book challenges is relatively low (472 in 1999), book challenges are especially dangerous because of the number of critically acclaimed or "classic" books challenged. In fact, the American Library Association's list of top 100 banned or challenged books lists I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; and The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, within the top ten. The list also contains six Newberry Award winning children's books and several other classic works, including Lord of the Flies, by William Golding and Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. The tendency to challenge books of literary and cultural value for just a few words or situations that may be considered objectionable is the real danger of book challenges. If our society has become so ignorant as to attempt to ban thought-provoking works of literature, removal of such literature is the last thing we need.

"This is the first time since the development of the local, free public library in the 19th century that the federal government has sought to require censorship in every single town and hamlet in America. More that 100 years of local control of libraries and a strong tradition of allowing adults to decide what to read is being casually set aside."

- Chris Hansen, ACLU Senior Staff Attorney, on a new law requiring mandatory internet filtering in all schools and libraries seeking government funding

The newest and most indiscriminate form of censorship is internet site blocking. There are several key reasons why internet censorship is possibly the most dangerous form of censorship taking place today. First of all, it is private corporations who manufacture the blocking software, and thus, specify what sites get blocked. They do this in several ways.

The main method of site blocking is by first checking if website address (URL) is on the program's list of blocked sites. If it is not, the program then scans the site for certain disallowed keywords. The problem with this method is that many sites are blocked that do not contain truly objectionable material. A blocking program might block a website with references to Middlesex, England just as readily as it might a real pornography site. In theory, users can disable keyword blocking and rely only on the human-reviewed URL blacklist. This does not work on many programs, however, because they rely on built-in programs to automatically add sites with objectionable keywords to the URL blacklist. This leads to many sites being blocked erroneously, including such pages as the Amnesty International website, a digitized copy of the novel Jane Eyre, and recently, the homepages of several dozen candidates for U. S. Congress (www.peacefire.org). Because of this method, the error rates for blocking programs are astronomical. In fact, renowned anti-censorware website "Peacefire" recently published a report placing the error rates for the programs Cyber Patrol and SurfWatch, two popular blocking programs, at over 80% each (Peacefire). Peacefire attained these numbers by testing the first 1000 ".com" internet domains and then reviewing blocked sites to discover if they were blocked correctly.

Despite the fact that the two programs obviously block many sites that are not pornographic in nature, the number of sites successfully blocked was quite different. SurfWatch correctly blocked 9 out of 51 total blocked sites, while Cyber Patrol only blocked 4 out of 21 total. This means that Cyber Patrol missed at least 5 pornographic sites, and may have missed countless others.

An even more troubling fact about internet filtering software and the companies that publish it, is that they often block any site that publishes information about the programs' faults. The most infamous example of this occurred in 1996, when peacefire.org was added to CYBERsitter's list of "pornographic" sites. (All of the information about the incident came from Peacefire's website, but is confirmed on a number of prominent news sites, including "Wired.com" and "Cnet.com".) On the same day, CYBERsitter president Brian Milburn sent a letter to Peacefire's Internet Service Provider threatening to block all sites hosted by the company if Peacefire was not removed. In January 1996, The Ethical Spectacle ("spectacle.org") mirrored Peacefire's site to protest it being blocked. The Ethical Spectacle was promptly blocked by CYBERsitter. In June 1997, CYBERsitter rewrote its installation file to create a false error message if it detected that the person trying to install it had recently visited Peacefire's website. Then, in January 1998, CYBERsitter allegedly sent a "mail bomb" of 500 e-mails to a woman who wrote them to complain about their software. It is also important to note that, until 1998, Peacefire contained no information about how to disable the CYBERsitter program, just lists of pages and keywords blocked. However, even opponents of blocking software acknowledge that CYBERsitter's actions are not representative of the entire filtering industry.

With an understanding of the limitations of filtering software, laws like the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires that all libraries and schools begin filtering the internet in 2002, become less credible. While it is important to keep young children from seeing sexually explicit material, modern filtering software is just not up to the task. Not only do these programs miss many truly pornographic sites, they block many more potentially useful webpages. Blind censoring of the internet is certainly not worth the negligible added security given by these programs. The danger of censorship lies in its indiscriminate nature. What is considered offensive to one person may be fine art to another, and everyone cannot be banned from seeing things that only some people object to. One also cannot, however, just permit anything and everything. Yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is certainly not "free speech," and hardcore child pornography should never be considered fine art. The rule of thumb, it seems, is if something directly causes harm to others, as do both these examples, it should not be allowed. This is why we have laws prohibiting child pornography and direct threats against another's life. While government involvement in these matters is essential, it should not be allowed to extend to other areas of life. The decision of what to watch and read should be the responsibility of the individual, not society as a whole.

Works Cited

American Library Association. Accessed 19 Dec 2000 http://www.ala.org

Bergher, Melvin. Censorship. New York, Impact Books, 1982

Haselton, Bennet. Peacefire. Updated daily. 19 Dec 2000 http://www.peacefire.org

McMasters, Paul. "Trying to Shut Out the Light By Banning Books." Freedom Forum. http://www.freedomforum.org/news/2000/09/2000-09-25-04.htm

Paulson, Ken. "Crumbling Cornerstone: Survey Finds Many Americans Willing to Give Up Free Speech in Favor of Social Civility." The Columbian Clark County, Washington 2 July 2000 B11


American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed 19 Dec 2000 http://www.aclu.org

American Library Association. Accessed 19 Dec 2000 http://www.ala.org

Bergher, Melvin. Censorship. New York, Impact Books, 1982

Haselton, Bennet. Peacefire. Updated daily. 19 Dec 2000 http://www.peacefire.org

Hopper, Ian. "Anti-smut Bill Passes: Filtering Internet in Schools is Censorship, ACLU Says." The Columbian Clark County, Washington 20 Dec 2000 A3

McMasters, Paul. "Trying to Shut Out the Light By Banning Books." Freedom Forum. http://www.freedomforum.org/news/2000/09/2000-09-25-04.htm

Paulson, Ken. "Crumbling Cornerstone: Survey Finds Many Americans Willing to Give Up Free Speech in Favor of Social Civility." The Columbian Clark County, Washington 2 July 2000 B11

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