Censorship. Nearly everyone agrees on the term’s definition in the context of print, electronic, and broadcast journalism. Namely, censorship is the action of a censor or organized societal group in controlling, removing, or adding words or images to news content. The disagreement, often vocal or even violent, occurs when individuals, governments, and institutions debate whether censorship is a good and necessary function in a society, or a danger sign that a treasured freedom is under threat. 

The issue of what news to leave in and what to take out or add differs widely on the type of society—say democratic, oligarchic, or despotic—and the present social conditions, especially in time of war versus peacetime. What is routinely reported in the United States might lead governments in China, North Korea or an Arab nation to block dissemination, a gap that may change in the future as the world’s residents in common turn to the Internet and 24-hour unrestricted news broadcasts for access to less-restrictive coverage.

Nonetheless, even in many democratic countries such as the United States, what is generally acceptable in the way of disseminating uncensored printed, electronic and broadcast journalism for adults may and does not apply for certain materials available to, and/or produced by, persons below the age of eighteen.

Communicating ideas and images has been synonymous with human development, and technology associated with media progressively makes it possible to reach ever-larger audiences. Some applaud what they read or view, while others use similar media to communicate their dissenting ideas. Censorship occurs when governments and institutions do not stop there but instead try to suppress the publication or other dissemination of words and ideas they find repugnant, offensive, traitorous, anti-religion, anti-government and so on. Patrick Garry, author of a book on censorship, maintains that censorship occurs most commonly in “weak and unstable communities,” that it “often expresses certain social insecurities and fears,” and that it amounts to “a desperate attempt to calm social insecurities and anxieties.” From medieval times to the present, the Catholic Church most certainly would take issue with Garry’s statement, as the Church maintains that it has a moral duty to warn its members and, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, exercised that presumed duty to forbid its members to attend certain films and to read books on its banned list.

Censorship is as old as civilization. Today’s parents may begin their child’s reading experience with one or more of Aesop’s fables, unaware that the priests of Delphi found his words sacrilegious and executed him. In ancient Rome, a bureaucrat called a censor originally was supposed to collect taxes and conduct a census (hence the derivation of the term), but assumed much broader powers. Ironically, Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Censor, actually wrote extensively himself, but he earned his name for censuring the public morality of senators and others.

In England under monarchy in Elizabethan times, someone who wrote or uttered words deigned grossly unacceptable to authorities might lose a hand or, as Edmund Spenser wrote in The Fairie Queene, see one’s offending tongue clipped and nailed to a post. [P. 3, Clegg] The one royalty-approved press under Queen Mary in 1557 was the London Company of Stationers, and both the Crown and the Company diligently searched for books without official sanction, as well as those deemed treasonous, seditious, or heretical in a religious sense. Three hundred years passed before the thinker John Stuart Mill argued in his treatise “On Liberty” that the government and institutions do “evil” themselves by silencing opinions of others they see as vile. “…The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it,” Mill wrote in 1859.  “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

         In the United States, most cases of censorship that cause widespread debate pro or con involve government suppression of information. In colonial days, without question the trial of New York Weekly Journal printer John Peter Zenger established the concept that a newspaper could indeed offer non-malicious, pertinent criticism of government officials without giving that government just cause to jail a printer or shut down the offending publication’s presses. Authors, librarians, journalists and others concerned with the right to express one’s ideas in the marketplace cite the First Amendment to the Constitution as their rationale. Kurt Vonnegut memorized the following in his Civics course at Shortridge High School. In part, he memorized this: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Even before that amendment, the Continental Congress of 1774 urged the creation of a free press to ensure that public affairs be conducted in “honest” fashion and to assure “the advancement of truth, science, morality and arts in general.”

         One of the most cited defenders of a free press is Thomas Jefferson, and indeed he wrote and uttered many powerful defenses of a free press as the voice of the self-governed people in a democracy. At the same time, he railed against what he perceived to be abuses of the press against himself and the fledgling democratic government, urging the press to be responsible, fair, and calumny free.

In the realm of education, school boards and appointed officials have halted or tried to halt publication of certain articles, and sometimes the officials have had pressure to bear by local politicians, religious groups, parents or church leaders. Books of authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and J.K. Rowling, also have drawn strong demands for bans on them in libraries or schools, frequently prompting equally strong community reaction in support of protecting speech, press, and ideas. The American Library Association, for example, promotes a Banned Books Week each year, and its web page cites a famous slogan from statesman, publisher, and author Benjamin Franklin: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

         Perhaps the most trying time for those who consider themselves staunch defenders of the First Amendment is any time of declared war, when even the loudest, self-proclaimed patriots suddenly clamor for a censoring of news in what they say is the national interest. On one side line up those who want an information blackout as they cite concern that the United States not lose battles or soldiers due to posting of top secret information. On the other are voices insisting that wholesale censorship is wrong even in a time of crisis and that a free nation cannot just drop the First Amendment when fellow citizens think it expedient to do so. At one time, the Chronicle of Higher Education cites vaunted textual scholar Robert J. Scholes who suggested frantic U.S. attempts to censor Al Qaeda propaganda are symptomatic of individuals and even a nation marked by “insularity” and “cultural arrogance.” [See Scholes, Robert J. “The Transition to College Reading,” Pedagogy. Spring 2002.]

During World War Two, Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information, successfully persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow Life magazine and other periodicals to publish photographs of war dead. Other restrictions on what war correspondents put into print were government-regulated in such matters as troop movements, which even journalists saw as necessary for the safeguarding of soldiers, but also in the reporting of Allied battles lost and the full number of U.S. casualties in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In addition to the Office of War Information, a civilian Office of Censorship and military censors restricted the news that actually appeared in the American press. Nonetheless, syndicated columnist Ernie Pyle managed to walk that tightrope, crafting news about the average G.I. Joe into short, masterful pieces, creative within censor limitations, that made him a national icon whose bald dome and lined face once went on the cover of Time magazine. “You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions,” Pyle wrote in a memorable column a little more than one year before a Japanese sniper killed him.

         In the last fifty years, perhaps the single most memorable occurrence of strong government pressure in the U.S. brought to bear against the concept of a free press was the 1971 attempt of President Richard Nixon to force the New York Times and the Washington Post to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsburg, a non-military staff member for the Defense Department. These “Papers” were actually excerpts from the “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy,” produced for the Secretary of Defense of the presidential administration proceeding Nixon, and detailed how the United States found itself entangled in the Vietnam War. The documents embarrassed past and current bureaucrats and military leaders and revealed woeful weaknesses in U.S. foreign policy. Acting posthaste, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled an attempt by then-Attorney General John Mitchell to thwart additional excerpt printing on the grounds that their publication weakened national security. The Court, in a 6-3 vote, ruled the government failed to show an extraordinary security need to keep the Pentagon Papers secret.

         Observing how even the government of a self-declared “free country” can so drastically throw itself in support of censorship may help explain the lengths to which governments can and will go to silence journalists and to block uncensored reportage. In 1964, the administration of South Korea President Chung Hee Park attempted to pass a so-called “Press Ethics Commission Law” that would allow the government prior restraint of publication and the power to imprison publishers who printed materials that the government found objectionable. A national coalition of journalists thwarted this proposal they defined as unconstitutional and oppressive. Perhaps the most heinous ways that governments have attempted to censor or punish publication is by executing journalists or imprisoning them. The classic example of such oppression was the arrest, torture, and savagery enacted against Argentine newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman who chronicled his horrific experiences after his release in the book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

Outside acts of brutality and killing, perhaps other misguided acts of censorship can be understood better by seeing that those who tried to limit press coverage thought that they were doing the right thing, and thus failing to see how they actually were trampling on First Amendment liberties. In the late 1970s, fearing in part that jurors might be influenced by what they read in a Richmond, Va., newspaper, a judge ordered two reporters out of his courtroom during a murder trial, only to eventually have his action criticized by the U.S. Supreme Court that said all such trials must be kept private and open to the citizenry.

         Today, one of the more controversial forms of halting publication is that of high school principals and school boards that have sometimes ordered the most expansive interpretation of a Supreme Court decision made in the late 1980s that allowed prior restraint of a student publication providing certain conditions were met.

Here is how the precedent was established.

In 1983, Gene Reynolds, the principal at Hazelwood High School in Missouri ordered the Spectrum newspaper adviser to pull a two-page spread on teens who felt pressure to have sexual relations. Three student journalists sued for their presumed right to publish with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union. An attorney for the school maintained that the First Amendment rights did not apply at this level to the Spectrum students because the principal had a duty to respect the privacy of students and to head off disruption of classes due to the clamor the principal said he thought might follow publication of these interviews with pregnant teens.

         Those who wish to publish journalism they feel is in the public’s right to know and those who believe there is a compelling reason to censor that information inevitably collide with seemingly no way of achieving a workable compromise. Ultimately, the case was determined in 1988 by the Supreme Court of the United States after Reversing a verdict of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that had decided in the Spectrum students’ favor, the Supreme Court voted 5-3 that schools under certain circumstances could act as censors without violating student freedoms of speech and press. In effect, principals and school advisers could pull any articles or photos in a student publication if those in authority decided these interfered with the school’s mission to educate, making it clear that the Court found a distinction between the press freedoms enjoyed by adult newspapers and those permitted high school students. Some crucial differences, in the Court’s view, was that the Spectrum was part of the school curriculum, used the school’s name and sponsorship, was trying to prevent what it though might be disruption to the educational process. The article therefore failed to qualify as protected speech in a public forum. Fuller, Sarah Betsy. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: Censorship in School Newspapers. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

         Unfortunately, from the viewpoint of First Amendment proponents, thousands of cases of censorship of high school publications have followed. School newspaper advisers have complained in surveys that Hazelwood has had a chilling effect on student publications, and that outside pressures from communities and religious organizations to censure student publications has become far more pervasive in the 1990s and 2000s. A few states such as California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have passed laws giving high school publications some of the rights back that Hazelwood removed.

Nonetheless, there have been some exceptions where not even Hazelwood could stop the presses on an important story. In Indiana, a student editor for the Avon High School Echo newspaper, with the support of her adviser, published her investigation into illicit athletic hazing at the school in spite of pressure from the then principal and then-coach to stop or delay publication. The Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association gave the student editor its Courage in Student Journalism award. In 2001, the new principal at Indiana’s Avon High School, Thomas Wachnicki, was given the same award after refusing community pressure to pull a serious Echo story on sexually transmitted diseases.

In the present, censorship is no less hotly debated as the definition of publisher grows wider thanks to the proliferation of inexpensive, often controversial publications placed on the Internet. Governments that by force or threat were able to assure publication of newspapers that were little more than propaganda devices now must contend with new media publishers threatening to expose corruption and other dark secrets. Unlike books or newspapers, burning of such documents is futile, and thus the only alternatives are to permit these publications to exist or to stop them through imprisonment or death of the journalists responsible for their content. Thus, the present century is deep into the dawn of a new era when readers expect to get their information from diverse sources without prior restraint, unjust laws to halt publication, or punishment for representatives of the press who do their jobs fairly and without favor to anyone. At the same time, it is impossible to even consider governments and institutions will suddenly halt all censorship practices. For that reason, it is safe to presume that censorship will continue to be a subject of international debate for thousands of years to come.


Main Works Consulted:


Adams, Julian. Freedom and Ethics in the Press. New York: Richards Rosen Press, Inc., 1983.


Cyndia Susan Clegg.  Press Censorship in Elizabethan England. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


Frederick S. Voss. Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War Two, Washington, D.C., The Smithsonian Institution, 1994.




Garry, Patrick. An American Paradox: Censorship in a Nation of Free Speech. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993.


______. Scrambling for Protection: The New Media and the First Amendment. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.


Harrison, Maureen and Steve Gilbert (eds.). Freedom of the Press Decisions of the United States Supreme Court. San Diego: Excellent Books, 1996.


Levy, Leonard W. Freedom of the Press from Zenger to Jefferson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.



Merrill, John C., Carter R. Bryan, and Marvin Alisky, The Foreign Press. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.