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Politically, there exists only what the public knows to exist.
("Politicamente, só existe aquilo que o público sabe que existe.")
António de Oliveira Salazar, 1933,
on the foundation of the Secretariado Nacional de Informação
(the propaganda ministry)
Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it.
—Mark Twain

Censorship usually refers to a state, religious institution, corporation, or other organization engaging in activities designed to conceal and/or suppress certain information or ideas. In the past, this has been done by burning books, jailing dissidents, and swamping people with government propaganda. In modern times, the same techniques can be used, but in places like China, it is complemented with a nationwide Internet firewall and the co-option of journalists.

General usage[edit]

Censorship can be very active in its methods. Book burning actively destroys the information contained in books to prevent it being read.

More generally, the term is also used any time people in positions of power try to prevent facts or ideas embarrassing to them from coming to light. This can be done by editorial boards of periodicals and journals, by restricting what their writers can actually research or write about, or by restricting and censoring what they do write, preventing it from being published. This can be done for many reasons, including due to fairly legitimate issues of style, or topics that editors just don't think are right for their publication. This type of censorship is not (and probably should not be) illegal; to force a journal or web site to promote ideas the owners and editors find anathema would be a violation of free speech. Actual censorship, however, is usually done much more maliciously, and threats (financial, legal, or physical) can be made to prevent something going to publication.

One pernicious result of this "right to not publish" can result in a form of censorship wherein all "major" outlets of information are owned by large corporations, which tend to have certain interests in common, and might, as a group, make it very hard to find information critical of those interests.

Censorship can also come from a government level, which is usually considered the worst kind of censorship. While individual corporations or private ventures have a right to control the information they host, and their readers are welcome to go elsewhere for their information, governments have a hold over everybody without exception. This leads to a population at large being denied information and more often than not, forcibly fed incorrect information. While citizens in most Western countries are safe against government censorship (for the most part, at least), other places have almost completely state-run media where literally no alternative exists for the public to access their information. In recent years, China has been somewhat notorious in censoring large portions of the internet from its citizens.

Legitimate censorship[edit]

Not all reasons for censorship are malicious. Prohibiting all forms of child pornography is one example where such censorship is universally acceptable (well, at least those involving actual children, as the legality of drawings or simulations is still being debated). Another example where censorship would be acceptable by human rights bodies is when raw footage contains scenes that are far too horrific for anyone to watch, as is the case of the Christchurch mosque shootings, where the perpetrator filmed himself shooting innocent people. Such universally accepted censorship cases are much rarer than controversial or illogical ones, however.

Burying the needle in straw[edit]

In modern times, due to ubiquitous channels of mass communication, a kind of censorship can be performed (intentionally or otherwise) by swamping the people with other information to hide some particular point. This form of censorship is associated with the Huxleyan flavour of dystopia (e.g. Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 to some extent) in which pleasurable, visceral, immediate, concrete stimuli (e.g., supermodels, baby bumps, or Charlie Sheen) crowd out troubling, cerebral, long-range, abstract stimuli (e.g., global warming, nuclear safety, the epidemiological consequences of vaccination refusal).[note 1]

Counterprotests "shouting down" a group of people are sometimes accused of being censorship, but since they don't usually actually prevent or deny the free expression of what they are protesting, again, this is not really censorship. But the waters can get murky at times!

Timing bias[edit]

Also, there is the now almost time-honored way of releasing "bad" political news: do it on Friday evening, after the major news outlets have wrapped up their stories. By Monday, it's not news any more, and often gets much less attention that it might have otherwise. This was brought to light when someone mentioned that 9/11 was a "good day to bury bad news".[1]

Free speech zones[edit]

The United States has recently seen more use of this insidious form of censorship. In order to "accommodate" demonstrators at high-profile events, they are shepherded into a pre-assigned area rather being allowed their right of free assembly. These areas are usually placed well out of the media spotlight - for instance, at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention in Boston, the "free speech zone" was some distance away from the building where the convention was held - in a wasteland of construction debris and fences under a roadway that was partially dismantled.

The Bible[edit]

The Bible has at times been noted as containing unsuitable content which would likely result in its censorship in some areas were it not for its religious significance. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Bible translations into local languages were often censored or prohibited.

It is often claimed by conspiracy theorists or people attacking the Christian religion that a large number of books were rejected or suppressed from the official Bible in order to hide divine revelation or to prevent embarrassment. This is highly misleading. While there are a large number of apocryphal religious Jewish and Christian religious texts, very few of them were ever widely regarded as authentic. Of the early apocryphal works, only The Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Gospel of the Hebrews ever appeared to have much currency outside of small sub-groups of Christians, and even they were considered widely controversial or noted as being "despised" by many early members of the Church. The books which today make up the New Testament are believed to have all originated in the first or second centuries CE, and the contents of those works are considered to be very well preserved, with only a few notable differences (most notably the end of the Gospel of Mark, which may have been written after the rest of the Gospel).

Many of the apocryphal religious writings were censored by the early Church; it is noted that the Apocalypse of Peter was, at one point, forbidden to be read in Church, presumably indicating that they did not consider it to be holy scripture.

One notable example of a highly successful piece of apocryphal writing was the Book of Mormon, written by Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormonism. It was first published in 1830, a very long time after other biblical apocrypha had been dismissed; it is universally rejected by all other Christian sects. There have been numerous other, less successful attempts at creating new Christian canon.

Censorship in films[edit]

This varies depending on the country and local views and laws.


Many "rental" and even "on sale" videos are censored. Scenes involving nudity, especially of the male frontal variety, are usually removed. Sometimes one will see both versions on offer, with different ratings on the box. When offered as television broadcasts, similar steps are also taken, with additional editing often employed to make the film fit its time slot. This is sometimes done to lower the level of gore for a film to be broadcast at particular times. For American television in particular, bad words (which are considered worse than all-out gun-toting violence) are also bleeped, cut, or voiced over.

Continental Europe[edit]

In some parts of continental Europe, there is almost no censorship of sexual scenes. In Spain, for example, late-night free-to-air local channels may broadcast uncut hardcore pornography.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the UK, the BBFCWikipedia will not censor movies without the permission of the film's producers, but this censorship may be necessary in order to give the movie a specific rating. For example, to preserve its PG rating, Star Wars Episode II was censored to remove a headbutt that would have given it a 12A rating had it been left in. Similar guidelines apply for nudity and bad language.

On television, most types of nudity are usually allowed to be shown after the "watershed" of 9pm, except for shots of an erect penis, which are forbidden. Scenes of simulated sexual activity are permitted; real depictions of sex are typically not.

Censoring of books[edit]

It's disappointing to see such a steep rise in the banning and restriction of books. We should trust our teachers and librarians to do their jobs. If you have a worldview that can be undone by a book, I would submit that the problem is not with the book.
—John Green, author of Looking for Alaska[2]

In antiquity[edit]

Some evidence suggests that the public libraries of the Roman Empire were actually not-so-public and were used as vehicles for censorship.[3]

During the Enlightenment[edit]

In Enlightenment-era Europe, books were censored both before and after publication, and the severity of each varied from country to country. For example, the Spanish Inquisition maintained a long Index of forbidden works, and became infamous for their almost totalitarian repression of dissenting ideas, while publishing laws in the United Provinces (the predecessor to the Netherlands) were pretty lax. In France, you had to get permission from the royal chancellery thanks to the 1566 Edict of Moulins, and they had to read through your work to get approval.[4] As you can imagine, this took a really long time, because they not only had to vet the book's quality, but also make sure you didn't say anything bad about the government or religion.[5]:265 Book burnings weren't terribly uncommon under the reign of Louis XIV,[6] and while authors in England were able to make a living off selling books on subscription,[note 2] French censorship laws stunted the popularity of this model.[7]:128

However, they ran into a lot of problems. Government censors couldn't keep up with the ever-growing volume of works, so in some cases, they had to loosen up regulations. In addition, there wasn't always a single unified censorship authority or set of laws. For example, the Paris region alone lacked a uniform code of censorship laws until 1723, and it wasn't until 1744 that the whole kingdom had one. The task of regulating the press was split up amongst several different groups of people, including the royal chancellery, the king's council, local provincial courts, the Lieutenant of Police, a college of theologians, local bishops, and a special assembly of clergy. They often issued conflicting orders and bickered amongst each other in ways that a lot of people found kinda entertaining, much like the celebrity gossip of today.[4]

Authors and publishers also often found ways to circumvent censorship. For example, they might disseminate works as manuscripts rather than books, and thanks to technological advances that allowed smaller printing presses, some publishers kept secret presses hidden away from the prying eyes of censors. Also, frequently, authors simply published their work in another country with looser printing regulations and smuggled their works across the border,[4] such as by sneaking them aboard coaches or stowing them aboard ships amongst other cargo. It wasn't without the risks, of course: many sailors were apprehensive about running books into France because they feared losing their main cargo when the books were confiscated, [6] and France, publishing in a foreign country also meant giving up copyright privileges.[7]:129

In the twentieth century[edit]

Book censorship continued even into the twentieth century, with harsh penalties for offenders. For example, under the pre-1959 obscenity laws, publishers in the United Kingdom could face imprisonment if they sold works with "purple passages" that might "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences", and the court judged books based on what teenage schoolgirls would read, even if the work was meant for adults.[8] The "purple passages" didn't have to be explicit; one book was removed from circulation for showing a lesbian relationship in a positive light, with sexual content stopping at "[a kiss] full on the lips, as a lover" and "that night they were not divided".[9]

R v Penguin Books Ltd marked a new shift in 20th century Britain. In 1960, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the author's death, Penguin Books decided to reprint the full version of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book infamous for its language and depiction of a tryst between people of different classes, completely unexpunged. The book had been first published in Italy in 1928, but many publishers were reluctant to offer it in the UK and US for fear of persecution. People in Britain could still legally buy a copy, but it was heavily expunged, and customs officials regularly seized unexpunged editions published in continental Europe. In response, the director of public prosecutions had publication of the book suspended and took the company to court under the new 1959 obscenity law.[10]

The prosecution...did not handle the case well. In his opening speech, the prosecutor infamously asked if the book was one which "you would wish your wife or servants to read"[10] and made a big fuss over all the four-letter words. (It used "fuck", "piss", "arse", "cock", "balls" — shock, horror!) He bungled the cross-examinations, his ability to understand the novel turned out to be lacking, and he generally came off as a stolid aristocrat out of touch with modern times. The defence, meanwhile, tailored their arguments carefully and made sure the jury included three women, banking on the prosecution to alienate them with their paternalistic sexism. Unsurprisingly, the jury acquitted.[8]

Other censorship can occur for the less blatant but more insidious reason of marketability. The third Hitchiker's Guide books, Life, the Universe and Everything, was censored for the American market. Two occurrences of the word "asshole" were changed to "kneebiter" and the phrase "The Most Gratuitous Use of the Word "Fuck" in a Serious Screenplay" was altered to "The Most Gratuitous Use of the Word "Belgium" in a Serious Screenplay".[11]


Producers of films also engage in two kinds of self-censorship. Sometimes, just one scene or shot is all it takes to change a film's rating. Both kinds involve paying attention to the "standards" while making the film in order to achieve the desired rating. Other times, a filmmaker seeks to obtain a lower rating by reducing objectionable material, possibly due to a contractual obligation to keep the film below a certain level, or simply for marketing purposes; G-rated movies have a different target audience, and PG-13 movies have historically been considered to have the largest audience demographic. Filmmakers most especially try to avoid NC-17 ratings or the local equivalent, as many theater chains will refuse to show such movies, greatly reducing their potential profitability.

In a related phenomenon, other times, a filmmaker seeks to obtain a higher rating in order to promote the film's "adultness", usually to teenagers who wouldn't be caught dead paying to watch a "family friendly" film, or simply because the audience will misunderstand what the film is about if it gets a lower rating. A film that might otherwise be rated G or PG might have a single instance of swearing inserted in order to obtain a PG-13 rating, thereby presenting it as being targeted towards its proper demographic.

Filmmakers will sometimes attempt to game the system by including a scene or a line intending for it to be rejected by the producers or studio either in order to "negotiate" down to the material they really want to include while still pretending to be reasonable, or in order to distract the raters from other potentially objectionable material.[note 3] This material occasionally is not rejected, and thus ends up in the final product, while at other times the rejected material may be used in promotional material before being cut from the final edit of the film. One example is the line "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school", from Fight Club, which was originally presented as "I want to have your abortion" as the line they could back down from, although the original line is included as a deleted scene on the DVD. (The latter line was actually the original line from the book.)[note 4]

The line between self-censorship and simple editing is not always clear-cut; people may cut out unimportant material simply because they feel it would distract or bother the audience, and thereby better present their true artistic vision or moral of the work, or simply for marketing reasons where their goal is simply to produce something to be consumed.

Censorship versus criticism[edit]

There is often confusion between censoring something and criticizing it. If someone publishes a critique or hostile argument, they may be accused of advocating censorship or trying to have something banned and therefore implicitly tarred as an evil censor whose criticisms are invalid. One example is Gamergate and particularly the opinions of Anita Sarkeesian, the latter of whom made criticisms of video game sexism that were incorrectly interpreted by some as calls for censorship.[12] While attacks on artworks, games, TV shows, etc. can involve calls for bans or other censorship (e.g. age ratings), this is certainly not always the case, and most reviewers, critics, and academics can point out flaws in something while simultaneously believing in freedom of speech. It is possible to believe something is immoral without wanting it to be made illegal; many people in the West are critical of adultery (particularly cheating without consent), but few would call for laws against it, which are found in parts of the middle East.

There is probably an overlap with self-censorship, in that vociferous criticism may lead to self-censorship. But what is required is not an absence of criticism but a free debate where both sides can put their case and the better argument wins. Controversy and differences of opinion are an important part of free society and the free exchange of ideas, and the ability to criticize is an essential part of freedom of speech.[13] Hence it is essential that people are able to air critical views without being shut down, and it's ironic that while censorship is often used to prevent criticism of those in power, accusations of censorship are also used to deflect legitimate criticism.

Censorship dressed up as human rights[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Hate speech

Lately, in several countries, a new form of censorship has been afoot. Unlike with previous forms, its promoters and practitioners not only pretend to be "committed to free speech", but also to be advocating or carrying out the censorship in the name of promoting or enforcing human rights. Specifically, they have provided "hate speech" laws and (in some cases) special "human rights" tribunals, which function in the following manner:

  1. Person A, being a member of some designated "protected" group, is offended by something said by person B.
  2. A issues a complaint to the tribunal.
  3. The tribunal charges person B with a hate crime and brings him in for a hearing or trial.
  4. Now B is guilty until proven innocent. If he cannot falsify the charge by proving his innocence of the hate, B is convicted.
  5. At this point B may be fined, jailed, or ordered to make a public apology to A, though this apology could be an outright lie.

This went on with little remark for many years, since the only people being convicted were neo-Nazis who advocated violence against Jews and other non-neo-Nazi groups.

That situation has changed when religion was classed as a protected group. Unlike race, religion is a mutable characteristic (arguably some Muslims will tell you apostasy results in capital punishment, but places with such practices are unlikely to have freedom of speech anyway). This means that, unlike in the cases of racism or antisemitism, much of the opposition to religion is not based in hate. Hence, prosecution of "hate speech" on these grounds is often regarded as ideological censorship.

In the UK, the acquittal of Nick Griffin on the charge of calling Islam a "wicked, vicious faith" spurred the enactment of a new hate speech law known as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, specifically targeting blasphemy offensive speech on the grounds of one's religion.

In Canada, when the Western Standard magazine published the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, a human rights complaint was brought against the magazine's publisher Ezra Levant. Alan Borovoy, a lawyer who had helped make the human rights laws under which the complaint was made, stated the laws had not been intended to be used in such a manner.[14] The complainant Syed Soharwardy later withdrew it, saying he had gotten a better understanding of freedom of speech and now thought he might be abusing the laws.[15]

"Advisory boards"[edit]

When certain advocacy groups are unable to convince the government to censor content that they deem offensive, those groups often establish an "advisory board". These boards then advise like-minded people to avoid certain films, books, TV shows, etc. Sometimes these groups are relatively weak, and come off as more annoying than ominous. Others make it their mission to influence public policy. Some religious organizations, however, have gone a step further, since most religious leaders have no qualms about bullying their followers into obeying their demands.

In the early twentieth century, the Catholic Church established the Legion of Decency to "advise" parishioners on which movies to avoid at the risk of condemning their immortal souls to everlasting hellfire. No, really! Catholics were told that if they watched certain movies, they were committing a cardinal sin and that they would go to hell for willfully disobeying the Church. Even future Oscar™ winning films weren't spared the wrath of the Legion.[16]

Other such advisory boards include:

Crazy but true tales of censorship[edit]

Some people who promote censorship aren't closet totalitarians. Sometimes they're just nuts.

  • In the mid-1980s, a woman in Pittsburgh started a letter-writing campaign to get the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm removed from the local newspaper. She objected to one particular strip that showed the character Grimm, a dog, drinking out of the toilet while thinking, "It doesn't get much better than this" (a popular beer commercial slogan at the time). Fans of the strip countered with their own letter-writing campaign. The whole back-and-forth played out on the paper's editorial page. Finally, after a few weeks of this, someone at the cartoon's syndicate decided to call the woman and ask her why she objected to the strip. Her response: she was worried that if dogs read the strip, they might get the idea that it's okay for them to drink out of the toilet.[17]

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Censorship.


  1. By contrast, direct censorship (such as book banning or burning), is associated with 'Orwellian' dystopias.
  2. It wasn't quite like a magazine or newspaper subscription. These days would probably be called a pre-order: an author would announce a work, and you'd buy a ticket to get a copy.
  3. See some examples here.
  4. Yeah, there's a book! SeeWikipedia


  1. Spin memo row duo quit (February 15, 2002) BBC News
  2. 'Eating away at democracy': book bans in US public schools rise by a third in a year: According to a new study by Pen America, there were 3,362 instances of book bans in school classrooms and libraries – with more than 40% of all cases occurring in Florida by Ella Creamer (22 Sep 2023 10.37 EDT) The Guardian.
  3. "Public Libraries" in Ancient Rome: Ideology and Reality by T. Keith Dix (1994) Libraries & Culture 29(3): 282-296.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Censorship in Europe (seventeenth-eighteenth century) by Marion Brétéché (June 6, 2020) Digital Encyclopedia of European History
  5. A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution by Robert Darnton (2018) Oxford University Press ISBN 9780195144512
  6. 6.0 6.1 5 Censorship and Culture from Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan I. Israel (February 8, 2001) Oxford University Press ISBN 9780191676970
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe by James Van Horn Melton (2001) Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-511-03776-7
  8. 8.0 8.1 The trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover by Geoffrey Robertson (October 22, 2010) The Guardian
  9. The Well of Loneliness: The book that could corrupt a nation by Hephzibah Anderson (November 22, 2022) BBC
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lady Chatterley's Lover trial by Philip Carter (September 23, 2010) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  11. Differences between the US and UK editions of Douglas Adams' "Life, the Universe and Everything". (Archived February 2003)
  12. When will gamers understand that criticism isn't censorship?, Ria Jenkins, The Guardian, Jan 30, 2015
  13. Conference Report: Taking the offensive – defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK, Index on Censorship
  14. Hearing complaint alters rights body's mandate by Alan Borovoy (March 16, 2006) Originally published in Calvary Herald, republished by Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
  15. Muslim leader drops Ezra Levant cartoon complaint by Graeme Morton (February 11/12, 2008) Originally published by Calvary Herald, reprinted by National Post
  16. "10 Oscar Films Condemned by the Legion of Decency", GoldDerby.com website, posted 18 February 2012, accessed 20 February 2012.
  17. "Saturday profile: Mike Peters of 'Mother Goose and Grimm'", at Comic Strip of the Day.com