What is Censorship?

2011

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 effects.

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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