What is Censorship?
In general terms, censorship is the suppression of speech
or publication of information. But the question of what is censorship
is not answered that easily, because it implies the related questions
of why things are censored and in what ways. When we look at
these questions we find that not all censorship is equal in its
To start with the simplest example, we self-censor our comments,
and with good reason. There is no need to tell a friend that
she is looking older, for example. This type, then, is generally
harmless. Censoring obscene or violent and graphic video footage
on the evening news is probably not a bad idea either. We don't
really need to see the body parts to learn what we need to know
about a bad highway accident, after all.
What we worry about most is censorship of important facts
and news. This is routinely done by organizations like schools
and (sadly) even news programs. Many people would prefer not
to inform students about all the bad things done by the US government
in the past. Americans don't like to emphasize the atrocities
committed, for example, like the firebombing of Dresden or the
internment of citizens during World War 2 who happened to be
of Japanese ancestry. Thus these bits of history are given little
or no space in some history texts.
Some properly point out that this kind of censorship is at
least limited. After all, you can go to a bookstore or go to
Amazon.com and buy many books that address these parts of our
history. This may not resolve the general problem of relatively
uninformed citizens, since most will not read about these things,
but the option is at least there.
As for news that doesn't get reported, well, it often does
get reported. If the networks aren't willing to put something
on because it is too complicated for their viewers to understand,
or too boring to boost ratings, or just because the bosses or
reporters have a bias, at least that news will still be reported
online (assuming it is of some importance). For example, websites
like ProjectCensored.org have many news stories that are underreported
elsewhere. The consequences of poor news coverage by the big
players is real, since that is where most people get "informed,"
but the option to get better information is at least there.
The more consequential type of censorship is that news which
is outright suppressed by a government. It is only governments
which have a monopoly on the use of force, after all, meaning
only they can (in a long-term and significant way) stop news
and ideas from getting out. If a publisher refuses to print your
book, you can take it elsewhere, or publish it yourself. But
if the government forbids you from publishing it, and even jails
you for doing so, that is something else (a violation of the
First Amendment to the Constitution, for starters).
So it is government censorship which is the biggest danger
(even if the other forms are also dangerous). Fortunately we
do not have too much of that sort... yet. But the line has been
crossed more than once, and so the precedents are in place. For
example, when it was made illegal to show the caskets of dead
soldiers on the news, that was clearly censorship. To prevent
such reporting or to throw a reporter in jail for showing the
human cost of war is to many, including myself, clearly unconstitutional.
In that case some people invented a national security justification,
in that inflammatory images would hurt the war effort. That kind
of reasoning opens the door for every sort of lie and for the
suppression of any honest reporting that is inconvenient to the
political interests of those who rule. If knowing the facts turns
the public against a government action, that is exactly the kind
of speech most in need of protection.
You might be surprised to know how many other instances there
are of censorship of the legal variety. For example, walnut and
cherry growers cannot tell people about the proven health benefits
of their products, because they are considered to be making unauthorized
health claims. You or I are still free to write whatever we want
about cherries, and say what we like about walnuts, and we don't
even have to be accurate. But if a cherry grower makes honest
claims he can face fines and worse.
When we ask "What is censorship," it really is important
to make a distinction between other forms of it and the censoring
by government. This isn't to say that there is no harm from some
of the other types, but the most dangerous censorship comes from
the point of a gun. You see, I might not want you to say something
or print something, but if I try to stop you, using force, I
am the one who would be jailed. If the government doesn't want
you to say something, they can imprison you, and apparently the
constitution is not enough to stop them from doing so.
Only a government can systematically stop free speech, because
only a government has the power to jail you or otherwise force
your compliance with their wishes. That is where we find the
most dangerous censorship.
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