In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Censorship

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies and Overviews
  • Theorizing Censorship
  • Early Cinema and Censorship
  • The Hays Office and the Production Code
  • Genre, the Individual Film, and Censorship
  • Television
  • Contemporary Censorship Practices

Cinema and Media Studies Censorship
Lee Grieveson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0015


All social orders make decisions about what facts, ideas, and representations can safely appear in public. Liberal polities from the 18th century came to value “free speech” and, accordingly, limited prior restraint of materials. However, these freedoms are limited. These limits have been tested particularly by the rise of popular newspapers in the mid-19th century and the mass distribution of moving images from the late 19th century. Obscenity, for example, is not protected speech. Governments at times of “crisis” have extended their regulatory authority to protect official “truths,” when governments argue that “national security” mandates stricter control of information. Authoritarian and ideological regimes have historically exerted more direct control over speech and media (broadly, respectively, preventing expressions of discontent and shaping ideology). The place of moving image media in these historical and political contexts has been varied. Liberal polities have frequently innovated a mixture of government censorship and industrial self-regulation. The trend has been toward the latter, and media industries establish their own regulatory boards to ensure their products do not cross lines delineated variously by the state, church, and other influential organizations. Censorship codes thus become known to media-makers, and hence internal to textual construction, and so function as a productive force. Self-regulation aims to ensure greater profitability for the usually heavily capitalized media industries, fending off more stringent state censorship and/or regulation of other economic aspects of media industries. This is a form of market censorship and a privatization of regulation; media industries have often used regulatory authority to help generate monopoly power, to limit access to markets, and to control legal agreements, such as those for patents and intellectual property. Authoritarian and ideological regimes maintain closer control, mostly because they don’t trust market censorship. Across all regimes, advocates of censorship usually insist that screen representations affect attitudes and conduct more than other forms of media, influencing viewers to act in socially proscribed ways. The viewer affected badly by screen representation is regarded as peculiarly vulnerable and as potentially dangerous to the social order. Censorship debates often focus on children, although the effects of screen representations on other groups—such as women, immigrants, colonized populations, or working class audiences—have also been a concern. Policing the borders of expression is centrally a question of power: censors try to encourage adherence to various systems of values and marginalize competing voices. Debates about media censorship are frequently highly charged negotiations over discursive practices in a culture, marking boundaries that are always closely tied to the establishment and maintenance of forms of social, moral, and political order.

Anthologies and Overviews

The study of censorship blossomed in the mid-1960s, amidst broader cultural and political changes. In the United States, this occurred at the same time that the long-running, self-regulatory Production Code was winding down to be replaced by a Ratings Code in 1968 that is still in use. Carmen 1966 surveys legal decisions up to that point in the United States, Randall 1968 looks closely at the functioning of city and state boards in the United States, while Hunnings 1967 offers a more comparative study (one of the few in studies on censorship, and this is something of a lacuna in current scholarship). The study of legal decisions in the United States is pursued in more recent scholarship: Jowett 1990 offers an excellent overview, DeGrazia and Newman 1982 gives details of a number of court cases (the former was a lawyer actively involved in censorship cases), and Wittern-Keller 2008 helpfully examines the long history of the legal record, using the files of state censors. The broader contexts for battles over the cinema and the functioning of self-regulatory bodies are addressed in two excellent collections of essays: Bernstein 1999 focuses on Hollywood before the 1968 Ratings Code went into effect, and Couvares 2006, an essential collection, covers a longer history, beginning with the emergence of cinema and culminating with the so-called culture wars of the 1980s.

  • Bernstein, Matthew, ed. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

    Very useful collection that carefully gathers together a number of previously published essays, combining them with two newly commissioned pieces, to examine movie censorship in the United States from the Supreme Court’s important 1915 decision on the legitimacy of state censorship to the emergence of the Ratings Code in 1968.

  • Carmen, Ira H.. Movies, Censorship and the Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

    Account of significant court cases in the United States and the impact of these on the existence and functioning of various city and state censor boards operative in the 1960s.

  • Couvares, Francis G., ed. Movie Censorship and American Culture. 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

    Couvares insightfully situates movie censorship as a central node within broader “culture wars”—battles about defining cultural value and deciding what is legitimate to see and hear—that are connected to questions of hegemony and power. Essays examine examples from the United States across the 20th century and are the best point of entry for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • DeGrazia, Edward, and Roger K. Newman. Banned Films: Movies, Censors, and the First Amendment. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1982.

    Overview of movie censorship that also includes a useful detailed account of 122 court cases involving the censorship of films in the United States from 1908 to 1981.

  • Hunnings, Neville March. Film Censors and the Law. London: Allen and Unwin, 1967.

    The material here on the emergence and functioning of censorship in Britain is useful, but the book is most valuable for the chapters on the history and (then) contemporary functioning of censorship in other countries, including the United States, India, Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, and Soviet Russia.

  • Jowett, Garth. “Moral Responsibility and Commercial Entertainment: Social Control in the United States Film Industry, 1907–1968.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 10.1 (1990): 3–31.

    DOI: 10.1080/01439689000260011

    Good overview of the censorship situation in the United States until the late 1960s by a significant media historian.

  • Randall, Richard. The Censorship of the Movies: The Social and Political Control of a Mass Medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

    Randall’s book delineates the legal contexts and the procedures of state and city prior restraint censorship, as well as more informal mechanisms, as they operated in the 1960s. Written amidst the broad social, cultural, and political changes of the 1960s, the book was published the same year the Ratings Code went into effect.

  • Wittern-Keller, Laura. Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915–1981. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

    Wittern-Keller outlines the judicial attitudes toward film censorship and the responses by individuals and the film industry as they sought to challenge legal restrictions.

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