Monday, June 26, 2006

Censorship - Overview


Censorship is the use of governmental power to control speech and other forms of human expression. The visible motive of censorship is often to stabilize or improve the society that the government would have control over. It is most commonly applied to acts that occur in public circumstances, and most formally involves the suppression of ideas by criminalizing or regulating expression. Furthermore, discussion of censorship often includes less formal means of controlling perceptions by excluding various ideas from mass communication. What is censored may range from specific words to entire concepts and it may be influenced by value systems.
Sanitization (removal) and whitewashing are almost interchangeable terms that refer to a particular form of censorship via omission, which seeks to "clean up" the portrayal of particular issues and/or facts that are already known, but that may be in conflict with the point of view of the censor. Some may consider extreme political correctness to be related, as a socially-imposed (rather than governmentally imposed) type of restriction, which, if taken to extremes, may qualify as self-censorship.


"Censorship" comes from the Latin word "censor". In Ancient Rome, the censor had two duties, to count the citizens and to supervise their morals. The term "census" is also derived from the same stem.

An early published reference to the term "whitewash" dates back to 1762 in a Boston Evening Post article. In 1800 the word was used publicly in a political context, when a Philadelphia Aurora editorial said that "if you do not whitewash President Adams speedily, the Democrats, like swarms of flies, will bespatter him all over, and make you both as speckled as a dirty wall, and as black as the devil." (citation needed)

The word "sanitization" is a euphemism commonly used in the political context of propaganda to refer to the doctoring of information that might otherwise be perceived as incriminating, self-contradictory, controversial, or damaging. Censorship, as compared to acts or policies of sanitization, more often refers to a publicly set standard, not a privately set standard. However, censorship is often alleged when an essentially private entity, such as a corporation, regulates access to information in a communication forum that serves a significant share of the public. Official censorship might occur at any jurisdictional level within a state or nation that otherwise represents itself as opposed to formal censorship.

Censorship types

Most public speech depends on an organized forum such as a court or town meeting, or on technologies such as paper, the printing press, radio, television, or the internet. In each case, only a minority of people have initially had free access to the medium of public communication. Most often, censorship does not seek to ban certain ideas "in a vacuum," but rather to restrict what may be said in particular media of communication.

In England, censorship began with the introduction of copyright laws, which gave the Crown the permission to license publishing. Without government approval, printing was not allowed. For a court or other governmental body to prevent a person from speaking or publishing before the act has even taken place is sometimes called prior restraint, which may be viewed as worse than punishment received after someone speaks, as in libel suits.

Censorship can be explicit, as in laws passed to prevent select positions from being published or propagated (e.g., the People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Australia, where certain Internet pages are not permitted), or it can be implicit, taking the form of intimidation by government, where people are afraid to express or support certain opinions for fear of losing their jobs, their position in society, their credibility, or even their lives. The latter form is similar to McCarthyism.


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