What Is Censorship?
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it! ” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.
How Does Censorship Happen?
Censorship occurs when expressive materials, like books, magazines, films and videos, or works of art, are removed or kept from public access. Individuals and pressure groups identify materials to which they object. Sometimes they succeed in pressuring schools not to use them, libraries not to shelve them, book and video stores not to carry them, publishers not to publish them, or art galleries not to display them. Censorship also occurs when materials are restricted to particular audiences, based on their age or other characteristics.
Who Attempts Censorship?
In most instances, a censor is a sincerely concerned individual who believes that censorship can improve society, protect children, and restore what the censor sees as lost moral values. But under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, each of us has the right to read, view, listen to, and disseminate constitutionally protected ideas, even if a censor finds those ideas offensive.
What Is The Relationship Between Censorship And Intellectual Freedom?
In expressing their opinions and concerns, would-be censors are exercising the same rights librarians seek to protect when they confront censorship. In making their criticisms known, people who object to certain ideas are exercising the same rights as those who created and disseminated the material to which they object. Their rights to voice opinions and try to persuade others to adopt those opinions is protected only if the rights of persons to express ideas they despise are also protected. The rights of both sides must be protected, or neither will survive.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that there are certain narrow categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment: obscenity, child pornography, defamation, and “fighting words,” or speech that incites immediate and imminent lawless action. The government is also allowed to enforce secrecy of some information when it is considered essential to national security, like troop movements in time of war, classified information about defense, etc.
What Is Obscenity?
Sexual expression is a frequent target of censorship. But the Supreme Court has told us that material is not obscene unless a judge or jury finds that an average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the material appeals to the prurient (or morbid, shameful, and unhealthy) interest in sex (note that, by its definition, the Court implicitly recognized that there is such a thing as a healthy interest in sex!); that it depicts or describes certain sexual acts defined in state law in a patently offensive way; and that a reasonable person (community standards do not control this last element) would find that the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. All three elements must be present for material to be judged by a judge or jury as obscene and, therefore, illegal.
Source: American Library Association, www.ala.org
From the Library Bill of Rights (1939)
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
American Library Association, www.ala.org
1. The students’ “right to know” includes all forms of communication: print, nonprint, and multimedia genres.
2. First Amendment rights to free speech and expression protect students’ rights to access, study, discuss, and produce nonprint and multimedia works.
Source: The NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship