Communication Censorship
by
Betty Houchin Winfield
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0020

Introduction

In a very large body of censorship scholarship spanning centuries, communication scholars point out that every civilization since antiquity has attempted to stop disagreeable expression. This bibliographic essay, focusing primarily on the United States, demonstrates that censorship can be institutional, individual, and by practice, a way to restrict or expunge objectionable material, information, or expression. Societies, as well as major institutions of the state, family, and church and their representatives, suppress expression thought to be dangerous, harmful, immoral, sensitive, or inconvenient. Historically, the research mostly focuses on political and legal censorship, which refers to any government restriction of the content of expression or its dissemination. Censorship can also be self-imposed. More recently, the research has emphasized corporate and Internet censorship. As a concept, censorship generally refers to three major areas of research: philosophical and legal controls juxtaposed with free expression values; theoretical constructs; and particular restrictions on specified media or content pushed by an organization or group. The kinds of controls are defined by governments or particular societal groups. The process of control can explain how suppression operates, such as by licensing as permission or approval to communicate or by government secrecy and closure of access to government meetings and information. Censorship has inhibited communication by punishments afterward with fines or imprisonment. The reasons for censorship can be numerous, most often in democratic societies to hide government malfeasance or as a necessity for survival during crises of national security and public safety. The following sections focus on censorship studies that would be useful for scholars: general overviews; references; ancient philosophical tenets to the later European basis, American foundations, legal case precedents, theoretical aspects, social responsibility expectations, restrictions by medium, crisis restrictions, and access issues; and self-censorship.

General Overviews

For the most part, Western political communication scholars point to a free expression goal and thus view censorship as an aberration of a democratic form of government. In a democracy, truth is sought for legitimacy in governing. Political censorship would be intolerable, except under most unusual circumstances, such as the national crisis of war. In practice, during great political stress or calamities, governments become more restrictive of rights and the public generally more accepting of suppression (see Siebert 1952, cited under Crisis Censorship). With the United States and other Western countries in types of perpetual war since World War II, there have many scholarly explanations of specific overt as well as subtle censorship depending on the magnitude of the crisis and the public’s acceptance of infringements. Day 2001 spans centuries for the kinds of political and legal censorships from antiquity to the present regardless of circumstances.

  • Day, Nancy. 2001. Censorship, or freedom of expression? Minneapolis: Lerner.

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    As a prime Western overview, this monograph, part of the Lerner ProCon public issues series, begins with the Greeks and Romans and presents major US cases that involve censorship and concludes with the current dilemma over Internet censorship.

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