Excerpted from Marjorie Heins‘ Sex, Sin and Blasphemy: A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars New Press, 1993, pp. 3-4.
What is censorship?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, to “censor” means “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.” The word “censor” originated in ancient Rome, where the government appointed officials to take the census and to supervise public morals. Censorship happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their political or moral values on others by suppressing words, images, or ideas that they find offensive.
A censor, traditionally, is an official whose job it is to examine literature, movies, or other forms of creative expression and to remove or ban anything she considers unsuitable. In this definition, censorship is something the government does. But censorship can also be accomplished very effectively by private groups.
Not all forms of censorship are illegal. When private individuals agitate to eliminate TV programs they dislike, or threaten to boycott the companies that support those programs with advertising dollars, they are certainly trying to censor artistic expression and interfere with the free speech of others. But their actions are perfectly legal; in fact, their protests are protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Not even all government censorship is unlawful. For example, we still have laws against “obscenity” in art and entertainment. These laws allow the government to punish people for producing or disseminating material about sex, if a judge or jury thinks the material is sufficiently offensive and lacks any “serious value.”
What is the basis for free expression in the United States?
The First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances) protects against government restrictions on or interference with the content of speech. The First Amendment applies to Government at the national, state, and local level.
Why should I care about censorship?
Understanding of First Amendment freedoms is fragile and imperiled by increasingly effective and sophisticated attacks. In numerous communities, people are determined to impose their own narrow views on everyone else, and censor what they do not approve.
The First Amendment exists to protect speech and activities that are unpopular—if only those ideas which were popular were protected, it wouldn’t be needed. Limiting free speech is unAmerican—without it, all our rights and liberties quickly disintegrate.
Censorship is an assault on the rights of all of us. We must continue to fight for the freedom to read, to see, to know, and to think for ourselves.
How can I fight back against censors in my community?
Here’s what you can do to organize locally.