In the United States of America, “censorship” has become a dirty word. Certain versions of history and interpretations of the constitution have given it a negative connotation. But are there any redeeming qualities in the principle of censorship? If it is as unpopular as public opinion suggests, why has it resurfaced in societies since the time of Ancient Rome? This article will explore justifications for censorship along with past applications.
If you’re a parent, you may dictate what media or technology your child has access to according to what you feel is appropriate for their age. As a child, you may have been on the receiving end of this. Perhaps it is this paternal instinct that inspired one of the earliest reasons for censorship. Even before the days of TV-MA ratings, Plato argued that “censorship is justified because it prevents the harmful influence of ideas that might morally corrupt our children.”
A modern example of this paternalism extending beyond the home is the banning of books in American schools. Once hailed “classics,” books like Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and To Kill a Mockingbird have all been challenged and/or discarded on the grounds of inappropriate content. The right to control a child’s exposure to controversial material has long been a part of the debate surrounding censorship, with obscenity and violence often cited as reasons for restriction.
Despite its popularity, the familiar term “pornography” has no legal meaning. The broad term applied to sexually explicit material is obscenity. The Supreme Court has had quite a time trying to assign an exact definition for obscenity. Our current understanding is based on standards provided in the 1973 case Miller v. California. “The work must 1) appeal to the average person’s prurient (shameful, morbid) interest in sex; 2) depict sexual conduct in a “patently offensive way” as defined by community standards; and 3) taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” If something is deemed a triple threat according to these qualifiers, it is categorized as obscene and thereby subject to censorship.
The 21st century has brought with it the normalization of violence, at least virtually. Video games such as Mortal Kombat have brought attention to the diverse ways which children can be exposed to extreme brutality. Though research conducted on the topic has ultimately been inconclusive, Common Sense Media points out that “research shows that viewing (or playing) violent content could increase the chance that a child will act aggressively — especially if other risk factors are present, such as growing up in a violent home.”
The issues of defining “violence” and where the censorship of violent material ends are of significant concern. “If we suppressed material based on the actions of unstable people, no work of fiction or art would be safe from censorship,” the ACLU counters, “Serial killer Theodore Bundy collected cheerleading magazines. And the work most often cited by psychopaths as justification for their acts of violence is the Bible.”
Plato makes a second argument that censorship is necessary for the protection of society. His claim is that the greed, selfishness, and dishonesty exhibited by those in power in a consequence of their exposure to greedy, selfish, and dishonest ideas in their youth. To Plato, people are a product of the media they consume. In the 21st century, Plato’s argument that censorship can protect society has expanded to national security and unity.
In the 1970s the New York Times and Washington Post were banned from publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Papers contained detailed records of the United States’ political and military involvement in the Vietnam War. The government barred them from being published on account that they contained information that was potentially detrimental to national security. After a Supreme Court case and much public dispute, the papers were eventually published. However, it does raise the question: Is national security an acceptable justification for censorship?
A more recent example is President Trump’s threat to ban the popular app Tik Tok, citing concerns for national security. A Bloomberg article explains, “TikTok starts collecting data the minute you download the app, according to researchers. It tracks the websites you’re browsing and how you type, down to keystroke rhythms and patterns, according to the company’s privacy policies and terms of service. The app warns users it has full access to photos, videos and contact information of friends stored in the device’s address book, unless you revoke those permissions.” A foreign entity having access to large amounts of data freely given by young, American users is enough to raise a red flag. But is it enough to ban the app altogether? According to a survey reported by Forbes, 40% of Americans think it is.
Wartime is extremely troubling for any country. Presidents John Adams and Woodrow Wilson seemed to believe that they did not need dissenters causing additional trouble at times when the unity of the nation was of the utmost importance. Enter the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In response to the French Revolution, President John Adams saw fit to suppress unpopular speech that denounced a government action or figure. From a government perspective, this was meant to unify the people, rally support for national causes, and keep the peace. All components of the act were either repealed or expired by 1802.
One hundred and twenty years later, President Woodrow Wilson became concerned by the rising disapproval of the nation’s involvement in World War 1. In an attempt to bolster the fighting spirit of the American people, the Sedition Act of 1918 was put in place as an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 to punish those who opposed the war effort in any number of ways. The punishment for these “crimes” took the form of large fines and prison sentences.
Protection from offense
Finally, American philosopher Joel Feinberg argues that censorship can protect us from offensive conduct and speech. His claim is that “Flag burning offends, and so too do hate speech, pornography, and desecration of religious symbols, and for that reason these expressions should be suppressed. Even if they do not morally corrupt children or put our society at risk, the fact that they cause offense in and of itself is a justification for their censorship.” I.A. McDonald insists that in order for this to be accepted, it must be proven that the benefits of censorship outweigh the costs.
Hate speech falls under the umbrella of offensiveness. The challenge when it comes to regulating hate speech is that there is no universal definition for the term. It is generally used in reference to attacks and insults toward people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation. The recent rise of hate speech has caused some to call for legislation against it, which opponents may label “censorship.” In a Washington Post opinion editorial, Richard Stengel explains why he is in favor of similar legislation: “All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting ‘thought that we hate,’ but not speech that incites hate. It undermines the very values of a fair marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect.”