“Censorship: Good, Evil, or Simply Misunderstood?”
written by Josh Litz, class of 2022
The bright orange flames climbed ever higher in the sky as crowds of onlookers cheered amidst the packed streets of Berlin. Inside the raging fire, thousands of books lay burning, while outside lines of young German students flocked to add more texts, statues, and busts looted from libraries around the city. Attending the ceremony, rows of German men stood dressed in military uniforms and performing the Nazi salute.
The date is May 10, 1933, and the books and statues being incinerated belong to various Jews, communists, and other groups considered “undesirable” by the new Nazi regime. Adolf Hitler has been chancellor for less than four months, and already his great persecution is well underway. Fueled by the crowds, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, delivers a fiery address:
No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! . . . The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you . . . You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed. (Ovenden 3)
Following this speech, Germany would rapidly continue its descent into darkness and oppression. The voices of Jews and other minority groups would continue to be silenced for well over the next decade, resulting in the deaths of around eleven million people.
Looking back, it’s easy to simply think of the war and the battles, or of the terror of the Holocaust and its victims. It’s somewhat harder to pinpoint where it all began, to remember the events that allowed the German people to be caught in such a struggle and to be drawn in so fully by the Nazi regime. However, knowing this is just as vital as knowing any other aspect. Understanding the way censorship works is just as, if not more important than, understanding the events that follow its implication.
Censorship is one of those rare issues that has been prevalent throughout nearly all of history and remains incredibly prevalent today. As such, it’s a topic worthy of study and one that should be examined in detail. Censorship is a complicated issue, and thus deciding how and when it should be implemented is a complicated question. However, we can come up with a general idea and flesh it out further along the way. This idea is as follows: Content and speech should be censored in the public domain only when it clearly leads to unlawful or unjustifiable harm or violates a certain moral acceptability standard. In private, censorship should be left entirely up to the company, individual, or other private entity except in certain special circumstances.
To get a good understanding of this statement, one must have a clear idea of what the topic is. So what exactly constitutes censorship? The official Merriam-Webster definition explains the use of the verb “censor” as “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable” (Censor Definition & Meaning). By extension and from the same source, “censorship” is “the institution, system, or practice of censoring.” Thus, at least according to the dictionary, censorship is simply the process of someone taking anything they don’t like and changing or removing it to better fit their views. As stated, this action could be performed by an individual or a larger institution. This provides a clear and straightforward base for understanding the concept, but as with most legal and political ideas, censorship is much more complex than this single phrase.
Censorship can be applied to many different areas and at many different levels of severity. In the most minor sense of the word, each of us have been censored many times in our lives. Your first encounter with censorship likely came when you were a young child. If you’ve ever said something rude or inappropriate and had your mom or dad tell you not to say that anymore, then you have, by definition, been censored. Your parents examined what you said, found it to be objectionable, and acted to suppress it. Even today, despite what we may think, most of us are probably being censored all the time. Have you ever sent a message that, whether intentionally or not, contained an expletive? If you have, you may have seen that particular word become autocorrected to something not so offensive, or perhaps it turned into a series of dots or asterisks. In this case, it seems that whatever application you were using found your word choice offensive and moved to alter or delete it. Once again, you’ve been censored. Now, I don’t use this to say that you should delete all messaging apps or no longer listen to your parents. Instead, these examples simply show that there are levels of censorship. While most mentions of the word might bring to mind dictators ruling evil empires or oppressed citizens who can’t speak their mind, the truth is that the applications are far more diverse. With that in mind, I think it can be comfortably said that not all censorship is evil or harmful.
Personally, I like to divide the applications of censorship into three main categories. The first of these I just discussed above in the example about parents. This is what I would consider “individual censorship.” Individual censorship is simply one person or small group of people laying out the guidelines for what they consider acceptable speech or content around them or by those under their umbrella of authority. This could be a parent telling a child not to curse, or a group of people asking that a certain topic not be discussed at a particular time or in a particular place. It is usually the loosest and simplest form of censorship, and is most often upheld simply through respect or a non-legal form of authority, like parenting.
I’ve categorized the second level of application as “corporate censorship.” As evidenced by the name, this category is censorship that is enforced through a private company or corporation onto those they choose. The most common recipients of this type would be a company’s employees or those that use a platform they’ve created. While not legally laid out by a federal or state legislature, this type of censorship is nonetheless highly enforceable and can carry weighty consequences. While arguing about politics at a family gathering might just get you dirty looks or a stern talking-to, doing so in front of your private employer may just place you out of a job.
Because, while the United States Constitution says that you can’t be locked up for supporting a particular politician, certain elements of federal and state laws do declare that your employer has the right to perform any number of actions if your messages have violated their policy. This also extends to users of certain websites or applications, members of clubs, students of schools, and many other types of private services. A chatting app could ban a user for spamming the chat by sending the same messages over and over again. A website where you post images or videos could delete someone’s content or refuse to pay a creator because they posted explicit content. A private school could suspend one or more students who they felt violated their standards. While the battle with government censorship may not be quite as prevalent as it used to be in a world that has placed increasing value on freedom and democracy, this new corporate arena has certainly risen to take its place. As media giants continue to grow in power and influence over the years, adding millions and millions more users to their bases, the debates over their use of censorship have grown more and more flagrant.
However, the explosion of the corporate censorship scene certainly doesn’t mean that the federal level is in any way irrelevant. This brings us to the third and final application, goold old-fashioned “government censorship.” Government censorship consists of any kind of censorship that is government-mandated. Every government has this aspect to some extent, but it is obvious that some government censorship is much more severe than others. The United States government has some of the lowest censorship of any major country, yet there are still many instances in which it exists. Most of these cases are in regards to certain type of media, for instance, uploading films or shows that are copyrighted or producing, sharing, or possessing pornography depicting minors. The list of federal U.S. censorship is comparatively scant, however, when looked at in comparison to that of many other countries. One of the more obvious examples would be the regime in North Korea under Kim Jong Un. In this nation, the media is tightly controlled and the citizens are not allowed to express their dissent. Despite having access to radio and television, residents cannot be influenced by outside sources as their devices are tuned only to government-mandated channels and registered and monitored by the nation’s police (Anderson).
While examples like this may and should invoke feelings of anger and resentment, it is important to remember that censorship does have its role in the world and can certainly be positive when not abused.
One interesting aspect relating to the different levels of censorship is the areas where they overlap and interact. A specific example of this can be seen in the way censorship works on television. Most people have probably heard of a TV network dropping a certain host for something that they did or discontinuing a series due to some kind of backlash. This is a relatively common expression of censorship that falls under the corporate category, as it’s simply a routine action well within the rights of the company.
However, many people may not be aware of the overarching branch of the federal government that is responsible for television censorship on a broader scale. This group is the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, and it’s their job to regulate what can or can’t be shown to the public. For the most part, the FCC doesn’t have a very noticeable effect as they’re banned from preventing the broadcast of a certain point of view. The only exception to this is if those views involve a “clear and present danger of serious, substantive evil.” However, while they can’t suppress political views, the FCC certainly does take action against content that might be considered morally unfit for television. The way they go about this censorship is relatively straightforward and involves three categories. These categories are classified as indecent material, profane material, and obscene material. While it would take too long to delve into the contents of each category, what’s important to note is that the FCC has decided that indecent material and profane material are protected by the Constitution while obscene material is not.
Logically then, obscene material is banned from television entirely, but what about the other two? Why categorize them at all if they’re protected under the Constitution and can’t be banned? The reason for this is that the FCC has a sort of halfway rule for these categories.
While they cannot be removed from television completely, it’s decided that they can be restricted when there is a reasonable risk of children being present in the audience. Thus, the FCC has set up the restrictions to where indecent and profane material is permitted on television, but not from 6 A.M. to 10 P.M. (The FCC and Freedom of Speech). Ideally, this covers the peak hours when children might be watching and decreases their exposure to potential immoral material. While this process of censoring television is certainly an informative topic, to truly understand the concept it is necessary to look at its origins in a time before television was even an object of consideration.
Censorship has almost certainly existed since the beginning of human civilization, and the term itself comes from the Roman office of censor, established in 443 BC. One of the first major recorded incidents involving censorship can be seen in the death of the famous Socrates. Socrates was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth” of Athens in 399 BC (Newth). In other words, he spoke about something that the leaders of Athens disagreed with and was censored. Since then, censorship has been a major part of nations and regimes many times over throughout history.
While most people are inclined to think only of the negative historical examples of censorship, there are also plenty of positive examples which should not be ignored. There are, after all, some things that must be censored. Subjects like child pornography, for instance, simply aren’t something that can be allowed in a moral society. I think most people would agree with this, and thus most people are at least pro-censorship to some degree. In the words of the late Irving Kristol, acclaimed journalist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “...if you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship” (Kristol).
However, topics such as sexual immorality are only the bare minimum when it comes to most people’s understandings of censorship, and it’s true that for every positive instance there have been many more negative examples throughout history. For as much as censorship has been a tool to keep society clean and safe, it’s also been a weapon used to destroy knowledge, tear down opposition, and control the masses. It’s absolutely necessary to understand the impact of these cases in order to fully grasp its effects.
One of the main ways censorship has been used throughout history is via the destruction of knowledge. The classic symbol, the burning of books, was actually a quite common and effective method of censorship before the advent of the internet. One of the most famous examples is the burning of the Library of Alexandria during Roman times. As a result of this incident, a vast stock of the wisdom of the ancient world was lost to history, with some claiming that it set humanity back by hundreds of years. Although this claim is dubious at best and it isn’t even known for sure if the library burned deliberately or by accident, it still serves as an example of the effects of the destruction of knowledge.
Perhaps a better example of the erasing of texts can be found thousands of years after the events of Alexandria in the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia. On August 25, 1992, Serbian forces began shelling one specific building in the city, its historic National and University Library. The Serbians used incendiary shells to light the building on fire and then positioned snipers and guns to target those attempting to douse the flames (Ovenden 153). Their intentions were clear: to destroy the rare books and artifacts in an attempt to crush the cultural identity of the Bosnian people.
The classic burning books example is only one small piece of censorship, however, and in the modern world it often takes on a different form. Despite being considered a bastion of freedom, the United States has had its run-ins with censorship practically since its inception. Many people will remember learning about the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which, while in effect for only four years, did provide an unconstitutional basis upon which the government could arrest those who criticized it. Those same people might also recall how Abraham Lincoln shut down Southern-sympathizing newspapers during the American Civil War (Zuchora-Walske 18). Woodrow Wilson was responsible for a similar bout of wartime censorship during World War I when he helped get the Espionage Act passed, which expanded the legal meaning of espionage in such a way that it made expressing certain opinions illegal (Zuchora-Walske 22). These are far from the only blatant censorship incidents in US history, and they serve to show how even in what is considered the most free country on earth, government censorship is still prevalent.
With this in mind, what exactly are the current laws regarding what the United States government can censor and what it can’t? Well, as is probably common knowledge for most people, the First Amendment doesn’t cover every single form of speech, media, or other content. The amendment reads as follows:
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. (Constitution of the United States)
However, throughout the years, there have been several clarifications about what is or isn’t free speech. In 1942, the Supreme Court case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire added a set of stipulations to what is protected under the First Amendment. The court decided that “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words” were not subject to protection from the Constitution. Their reasoning was that “such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality” (Pohlman 43).
Over the years, the list of unprotected speech was edited and clarified until it became the list that is in place today. The current selection includes child pornography, libel and slander, copyright laws, and certain levels of threats, obscenities, speech involving crimes, and “fighting words” (What Type of Speech). Of course, the latter members of this list cannot always be interpreted objectively, and thus it has been a subject of court debate as to whether or not certain instances of speech constitute a legal “threat” or not. During one of the more recent cases, 2003’s Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court discussed what is considered a threat punishable by law, specifically in the context of intimidation:
“Intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word,” the Court explained, “is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” In such a case, the speaker must “communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals,” but the speaker “need not actually intend to carry out the threat.” (Pohlman 46)
This decision demonstrates how words even without action can be considered outside of the protection of the First Amendment.
Regardless of whether you intend to go around threatening people or not, censorship is definitely important to people’s everyday lives. After all, what would a world without any type of censorship whatsoever look like? Going back to the parenting example, how would a child who was never taught to refrain from using certain speech fare in the world? Conversations would certainly be a lot less civil, but that’s only the beginning. What if companies and media platforms didn’t curate what was allowed on their site at all? Would you like to be casually scrolling through your daily Instagram feed only to be suddenly bombarded by explicit and obscene images?
Censorship clearly has its place in the world, and thus the question is not simply whether it’s good or bad. Rather, the question is how much is acceptable and under what circumstances. Naturally, herein lies the problem. Censorship affects so wide a range of topics and exists on so many levels that it is difficult to find a one-size-fits-all rule. Because the topic is so complex, we can’t jump straight to a conclusion. Thus, the best way to begin deciding how to use censorship is to clarify who should be the ones making that decision and who should have the influence over what is censored and what is left alone.
We can begin with the simplest application, individual censorship. In this example, the answer seems fairly straightforward, but is nonetheless difficult to conclude due to the usual lack of legal enforcement. For the most part, in any case of individual censorship, the individual performing the censoring should have the right to apply that censorship to whatever they choose. Of course, a set of parents should have the authority to determine what is or isn’t appropriate for their child to either output through their speech or input through the media they consume. Someone in their own home should be able to regulate what is said by guests almost completely. There are obvious exceptions to the rule, of course. A parent who is so controlling to the point of being abusive may require intervention, but that is more an issue of social services than censorship regulation. Any censorship that would break existing laws, such as attempting to enforce your own censorship rights physically on a guest would not be justified. However, this once again takes the issue further away from censorship and more toward simple violence. The main difference is in the location. In someone’s own home or land, they should have every right to decide what is censored and what isn’t regardless of outside intervention, excluding uncensoring items censored by federal laws. However, in public, the rights to individual censorship fall away and, besides parental censorship, are transferred to the next entity, corporate or federal.
At the corporate level, things may get a bit stickier. The main privilege of deciding what should or shouldn’t deserve censorship should of course fall upon the owner of the business or other appointed staff. However, in this case, there is more than just one aspect to look at. With individual censorship, all that really needs to be examined is the situation within one’s own home or property. Corporate censorship, on the other hand, adds a whole other dimension. In the business world, an entity must have two different standards of censorship; one for its employees, and one for its consumers. This discrepancy isn’t as big of a deal for some companies, but it can become a real challenge for many, especially those involved in the world of social media. Of course, the standard for employees is usually much stricter than that of the consumer, and rightfully so. Employees naturally reflect the values of the company and its owners, investors, etc., even if they don’t mean to. As such, it’s fair for the owner of a business to place harsher restrictions on their employees than they would on their consumers. The business belongs to the owner and is thus more similar to someone’s home than any government censorship situation.
The question becomes somewhat more complicated on the consumer end, however.
Take, for instance, a social media app. The users of this app, while not employees, are still within the domain of the company. They don’t really reflect the values of the company like an employee would, but what they’re allowed to express does still impact the image of the business. Because of this, it’s still fair for the company to decide what can and cannot be said. Of course, if violated, they can’t take any actions outside of banning, suspending, or otherwise penalizing someone strictly within the confines of their business or app. Anything outside of that would of course be protected by the First Amendment. Ideally, this censorship would be used equally regardless of political affiliation, race, religion, etc., but even if that is not the case it should still be within the company’s rights to decide what they want to censor and what they don’t. In that situation, it falls upon the general public to decide not to work with that company rather than laws or restrictions to intervene.
Finally, this brings us to government censorship. This area is most complicated of all, because it sets the basis for the entire nation and can bring serious legal consequences. Of course, the general answer as to who can censor what here is “the government”. Senators, representatives, and the rest of the lawmakers ultimately make the decisions as to what is or isn’t protected under the First Amendment, at least in the United States. However, the government is in charge of so many different areas and thus must have different levels of censorship for different arenas. What’s permissible in a government-funded public school is likely different from what might get someone in trouble at the local park. It would take far too long to go through every government program, but what must be understood is that not every instance of censorship is birthed in the Senate, House of Representatives, or Supreme Court. For instance, while public schools in the United States are government-funded and therefore not private entities, they still often have different censorship rules than other public areas. While students in public schools are certainly protected by the First Amendment, school officials still have the right to perform certain levels of censorship when they feel it’s appropriate.
One instance of this can be seen in the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In this instance, students attending Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis Missouri experienced censorship when the principal deleted several pages of their article from the school newspaper containing stories about their peers’ experiences with teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce. The students challenged this as a violation of their First Amendment rights and the case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. It was here that the highest law in the land ruled 5-3 in favor of the school, proclaiming that “...the school had a legitimate interest in preventing the publication of articles that it deemed inappropriate and that might appear to have the imprimatur of the school” (Facts and Case Summary). This narrative simply serves as an example that what Congress protects under the First Amendment doesn’t always hold true for every single government-mandated sector in the nation, and that there are often local officials who can censor additional content as well.
Now that it’s been explained who does the censoring, we can come back to the what and the why. Earlier, I stated that “Content and speech should be censored in the public domain only when it clearly leads to unlawful or unjustifiable harm or violates a certain moral acceptability standard. In private, censorship should be left entirely up to the company, individual, or other private entity except in certain special circumstances.” On the surface, this is a relatively simple answer. However, it does require some important clarifications and additional explanation.
First, there are two distinctions: public and private. The public domain in this case refers to any area that is not under the ownership of a particular individual, corporation, or other private entity. This would be any public place, like the street or sidewalk. Here, the two criteria for what should be censored are speech leading to “unlawful or unjustifiable harm” or content that “violates a certain moral acceptability standard.” The first part is fairly straightforward. It references some of the speech not protected by the First Amendment, such as threats or slander. While generally the less censorship the better, it is true that at a certain point directly inciting needless violence or running a fraudulent smear campaign is too harmful to allow. In this situation, even the most hardcore advocates of free speech must recognize that legal action is necessary to uphold society.
The second part, content that “violates a certain moral acceptability standard,” could be considered more subjective. After all, everyone has different morals. It’s hardly fair to hold everyone to the strictest possible standard of virtue in order to keep society pure. That being said, there are boundaries that the vast majority of humanity would agree cannot be crossed.
This is why the obscenities category and pornography depicting minors are legally considered unprotected content or speech. While the latter hardly needs an argument to be made for why it’s unprotected, the obscenities category might need a little explanation. Everyone knows that people can drop a few cuss words in public without worrying about going to prison. However, there are many ways to take it further that might be considered “disturbing the peace.” In some of the more extreme cases, it is justifiable for people to get into legal trouble simply for using words alone. That’s the beauty of a democratic system where, at least in theory, an unbiased group can decide whether the individual’s words were really worth legal action or not.
The second part of the statement refers to the private side of things. In this case, what is or isn’t censored should be left entirely up to the entity themselves with some exceptions. The reasoning for this is that, ideally, an individual should have full say over what can or can’t be shown or expressed on their property. This would mean that a business could fire an employee or a social media app could ban a user for whatever reason they pleased with no fear of legal repercussions under the First Amendment. The “victim” of such an occurrence would, of course, still not be subject to any actual censorship laws from the government, but they wouldn’t be protected by any either. Instead, the weight would fall entirely on the general public to choose whether or not to support said entity in the future. If done any other way, the lines become too blurred and the violation of the freedoms of the company or individual themselves begin to be called into question.
Obviously, as I stated earlier, there are always exceptions and special circumstances. The first such circumstance comes into play if the business or individual is violating any of the government rules mentioned in the previous section. While a private entity may choose to censor harder if they wish, they cannot censor less. The list of federally unprotected speech is a baseline moral acceptability standard for a civilized nation. It’s just about the bare minimum of how low censorship levels can go without fostering an uncontrolled, debased society. Because of this, it’s important to specify that there are practically zero cases where the unprotected speech list should not apply.
Additionally, a gray area exists when considering government-run programs and institutions. Examples of these could include public schools or official government and legislative buildings. While they are technically federally owned and thus not subject to private censorship rights, there are obviously still situations in which they may logically need additional rules. It would take far too long to lay out a plan for each situation, but it can be understood that these are natural exceptions to the rule.
In an ideal world, censorship would be implemented perfectly at every step of the way. There would be no dictators banning texts and erasing thoughts, flailing censorship around like a whip and using it to crush ideas on a whim. There would be no dark web where illicit and immoral content flows freely without limit. There would simply be balance, a place where censorship is not praised as good or decried as evil, but rather recognized as the tool that it is. That is the reality to work towards. That is the model to attempt to recreate in order to foster a society where content is utilized to its maximum potential without causing harm. If we as the collective humanity could reach that point, we would undoubtedly experience less hatred and confusion and more knowledge and growth.
Of course, that’s the ideal world. In the real world, it’s impossible to perfectly plan out the system that will solve all of the world’s censorship debates, and that’s not what I’m aiming do. Rather, the important thing is to understand what censorship is, how it affects us, and to think about how we believe it should be best implemented and kept under control. Censorship a complicated and important issue, and in a world of increasing technology and government capability, it certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. All that we can do is to learn to live with it; to use it where applicable and keep it in check where it needs to be. If we can achieve this, we can keep our nations and ourselves both safe and free, and hopefully escape the flames of that tragic scene that played out in the streets of Berlin only ninety short years ago.