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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),[1] 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).[2]

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".[3]

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]

Some evidence suggests that the public libraries of the Roman Empire were actually not-so-public and were used as vehicles for censorship.[4]

Censorship of books has often included an outright ban on publication. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was not legally printed in the UK until 1960, for example. Its publishing was part of possibly the greatest social upheaval of the 20th century; the prosecutor asked if the book was one which "you would wish your wife or servants to read" (it used the word "cunt" — shock, horror!) This sort of censorship persists to the modern day, with the works of authors such as Judy Blume being frequently challenged.

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".


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.[5] 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.)[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

"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.[11]

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.[12]

See also[edit]

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


  1. Maybe Fahrenheit 451?
  2. By contrast, direct censorship (such as book banning or burning), is associated with 'Orwellian' dystopias.
  3. BBC News - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1823120.stm
  4. "Public Libraries" in Ancient Rome: Ideology and Reality by T. Keith Dix (1994) Libraries & Culture 29(3): 282-296.
  5. See some examples here.
  6. Yeah, there's a book! SeeWikipedia
  7. When will gamers understand that criticism isn't censorship?, Ria Jenkins, The Guardian, Jan 30, 2015
  8. Conference Report: Taking the offensive – defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK, Index on Censorship
  9. http://www.safs.ca/issuescases/aborovoy.html
  10. http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/city/story.html?id=7e0d6665-0c5d-41b8-a706-d95f3b0329be
  11. "10 Oscar Films Condemned by the Legion of Decency", GoldDerby.com website, posted 18 February 2012, accessed 20 February 2012.
  12. "Saturday profile: Mike Peters of 'Mother Goose and Grimm'", at Comic Strip of the Day.com