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censorship, official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order. It may be imposed by governmental authority, local or national, by a religious body, or occasionally by a powerful private group. It may be applied to the mails, speech, the press, the theater, dance, art, literature, photography, the cinema, radio, television, or computer and smartphone communications. Censorship may be either preventive or punitive, according to whether it is exercised before or after the expression has been made public. In use since antiquity, the practice has been particularly thoroughgoing under autocratic and heavily centralized governments, from the Roman Empire to the totalitarian states of the 20th cent.

In the United States

Censorship has existed in the United States since colonial times; its emphasis has gradually shifted from the political to the sexual.

Political Censorship

Attempts to suppress political freedom of the press in the American colonies were recurrent; one victory against censorship was the trial of John Peter Zenger. The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, speech, and religion. Nevertheless, there have been examples of official political censorship, notably in the actions taken under the Sedition Act of 1798 (see Alien and Sedition Acts), suppression of abolitionist literature in the antebellum South, and local attempts in the 19th and 20th cent. to repress publications considered radical. During the cold war many Americans worked to keep textbooks and teaching that they considered deleterious to “the American form of government” out of schools and colleges; many others opposed this effort (see academic freedom).

The issue of government secrecy was dealt with in the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, which stated that, with some exceptions, people have the right of access to government records. The issue was challenged in 1971, when a secret government study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was published by major newspapers. The government sued to stop publication, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers (see press, freedom of the).

Cultural Censorship

Long before World War I there were vigilante attacks, such as those by Anthony Comstock, on what was reckoned obscene literature, and the U.S. Post Office expanded (1873) its ban on the shipment of obscene literature and art, but it was after World War I that public controversy over censorship raged most fiercely. Until the Tariff Act was amended in 1930, many literary classics were not allowed entry into the United States on grounds of obscenity. Even after the act's amendment censorship attempts persisted, and James Joyce's Ulysses was not allowed into the country until 1933, after a court fight. Noted works of literature involved in obscenity cases included Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, and Fanny Hill by John Cleland. Over a 15-year period beginning in 1957, a series of Supreme Court decisions relaxed restrictions on so-called obscene materials, although not all obscenity prosecutions during this time were dismissed; in a famous case in the 1960s publisher Ralph Ginzburg was convicted of advertising in an obscene manner.

As Supreme Court decisions struck down many obscenity statutes, states responded by enacting laws prohibiting the sale of obscene materials to minors, and these were upheld (1968) by the Supreme Court. In decisions handed down in 1973 and 1987, the Court ruled that local governments could restrict works if they were without “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” and were at the same time seen, by local standards, to appeal to prurient interest. From the 1960s, the issue of sex education in schools was highly controversial; more recently, the question of AIDS education has stirred debate. Since the 1980s, some activists have sought to ban pornography as injurious to women. Other activists, concerned with racism and other forms of bigotry, lobbied for the suppression of what came to be called hate speech.

The producers of motion pictures, dependent for success on widespread public approval, somewhat reluctantly adopted a self-regulatory code of morals in the 1920s (see Hays, Will H.). This was replaced after 1966 by a voluntary rating system under the supervision of the Motion Picture Producers Association; the need to tailor a movie to fit a ratings category has acted as a form of censorship.

Since 1934, local radio (and later, television) stations have operated under licenses granted by the Federal Communications Commission, which is expressly forbidden to exercise censorship. However, the required periodical review of a station's license invites indirect censorship. The Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that indecent material could be banned from commercial cable-television stations but not from public-access cable stations.

The development of the Internet has presented another set of issues. The Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton, was overturned by the Supreme Court for the restrictions it placed on adult access to and use of constitutionally protected material and communication on the Internet. The Child Online Protection Act (1998), which called for penalties on those offering material harmful to minors, also was successfully challenged for similar reasons. The Children's Internet Protection Act (2001), which requires libraries and schools to install antipornography filters on computers with federally financed Internet access, was upheld, however, because it was only a condition attached to the acceptance of federal funding and not a general prohibition on access.

In Other Countries

In other countries, censorship is accepted as inevitable in times of war, and it has been imposed to varying degrees even in peacetime. In the Middle Ages, attempts to silence heresy through intimidation, particularly through the establishment of the Inquisition, were examples of censorship, as are modern instances of book banning. The absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th cent. imposed strict controls, and because the Reformation had resulted in a reshuffling of the relations between church and state, these controls were used to persecute opponents of the established religion of a particular state, Roman Catholic or Protestant. A form of book-banning was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the Index, a list of publications that the faithful were forbidden to read. The last edition of the Index was published in 1948; in 1966 Pope Paul VI decreed that it would be discontinued. Paradoxically, in the lands under Calvinist domination (such as Geneva, Scotland, and England of the Puritan period) where the ideals of liberty and freedom first blossomed, regulation of private conduct and individual opinion was rigorous, and censorship was strong.

Strict censorship of all forms of public expression characterized the Soviet Union throughout most of its 74-year history. Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, was not permitted publication there, and the novels of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, considered by many to be masterpieces, were banned in 1966. Soviet censorship largely ended in 1986 under Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness).

In Britain during the 19th and 20th cent., the object of censorship has most often been literature regarded as obscene. With the passage of the Obscene Publications Act in 1857, there followed many criminal prosecutions and seizures of books. This law remained in effect until 1959, when a new law provided that the opinion of artistic or literary experts could be submitted as evidence in deciding obscenity cases and that work alleged to be obscene had to be judged as a whole rather than in part. However, when the editors of an underground periodical, Oz, were convicted in 1971 for violating postal laws, an appeal court held that a periodical need not be judged as a whole, an apparent reversal of the 1959 act.

The Internet and social media apps have presented new challenges for governments seeking to censor information. In some cases, governments have sought to impose censorship not only by restricting and removing information but also by severely limiting their citizens' access to Internet sites or social media apps outside their control. In other instances, governments have temporarily limited or halted Internet and social media access for what are often termed security reasons, but such restrictions can have the effect of not only preventing social media communication but also stopping Internet use essential to the functioning of modern economies.


See R. B. Downs and R. E. McCoy, ed., The First Freedom Today (1984); H. M. Clor, Obscenity and Public Morality (1985).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the control exercised by official authorities, whether secular or ecclesiastical, over the contents, publication, and circulation of printed matter, over the performance of plays and other stage works, and over fine arts and photographic exhibits, motion pictures, radio and television broadcasts, and sometimes even private correspondence for the purpose of preventing or limiting the dissemination of ideas and information deemed by such authorities to be undesirable or harmful.

Censorship may be imposed either before or after release of a given work. In the case of prior censorship, permission must be obtained before a book can be published, for example, or a play produced, whereas ex post facto censorship is exercised through the review of works that have already been published or otherwise released and through the restriction or prohibition of any work that violates the rules of censorship.

During the Middle Ages, censorship was exercised by the church authorities over theological and liturgical manuscripts in order to prevent heresies or other deviations from official church standards. The church issued book-banning decrees as well. In the 14th century, under Pope Urban VI, it was decreed that only those books could be used that were faithful copies of the originals and whose contents were not contrary to church dogma. In the early 15th century, Pope Martin V instituted a college of bishops that had control over the contents of books. Somewhat later, censorship functions were assumed by the secular state with respect to book copyists and the contents of books produced by them; such functions were usually exercised by the universities.

The invention of book printing stimulated the development of censorship. In 1471 it was decreed that books on religious subjects could be printed only with prior permission of the church authorities. In the mid-16th century the Catholic Church compiled a list of forbidden books; subsequently the list was repeatedly expanded. Beginning in the 16th century, censorship gradually passed into the hands of the secular authorities, becoming firmly established in all the Western European countries that had printing houses.

Under absolutist forms of government, censorship was one of the chief weapons used by the state and the church against ideologies that were hostile to the feudal system. Censorship bodies grew in number and were given greater responsibility over violations of the rules of censorship.

The French Revolution and the bourgeois revolutions elsewhere proclaimed freedom of expression and the abolition of censorship. The bourgeoisie itself, however, having gained political power, made extensive use of censorship for its own class purposes, thereby restricting the exercise of democratic freedoms by the proletariat and the workers’ progressive organizations. For a long time, workers’ publications in many countries were prohibited altogether.

Every bourgeois state today exercises ex post facto, or punitive, censorship—that is, criminal proceedings are instituted in the case of publication of “defamatory and slanderous” information; punitive measures include fines, confiscation of printed issues, and bans or attachments against publication. The laws with respect to what may be published are so vague in formulation that they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In the USA, for example, it is prohibited “to abuse freedom of speech and freedom of the press”; in Great Britain the government can prohibit the publication of certain news items on the grounds of “national interest.” According to Anglo-Saxon law, such censorship is not deemed contrary to freedom of speech and of the press.

The bourgeois states have no formal system of prior censorship; in many countries, however—including the USA, France, and Great Britain—a functioning system of governmental measures enables a stringent censorship to be effected in practice. In addition, opportunities to disseminate progressive publications are limited by the fact that new publishing organizations must be licensed and registered by the competent state agencies and must have large sums of money at their disposal in order to be able to operate. The very fact that the mass media, including newspapers and magazines, are owned by large monopolies determines the selection of material to be published and the weeding out of information that is unfavorable to the ruling class.

The censorship of motion pictures and school textbooks, which is systematically practiced in all the bourgeois states, is particularly stringent in the USA. In most of the bourgeois countries, the observance of censorship prohibitions is under the jurisdiction of the ministry or department of justice, the public prosecutor’s office, or the ministry of internal affairs.


Ideologicheskaia deiatel’nost’ sovremennogo imperialisticheskogo gosudarstva. Moscow, 1972.
In Russia. The earliest form of censorship in Russia, dating back to the 16th century, was religious censorship; its functions were assumed by the Synod in 1721. A decree of 1783, which allowed private individuals to establish printing houses, also introduced prior censorship: manuscripts could be printed only after being reviewed by the uprava blagochiniia (board of police). The outbreak of the French Revolution led to stricter censorship policies. In 1790, A. N. Radishchev’s book A Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow was destroyed; in 1792, N. I. Novikov’s publishing house was closed down. A decree of 1796 instituted controls on the publication and importing of books into Russia and established censorship commissions in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities.
Censorship in the 19th century was regulated by special statutes. The first censorship statute, adopted in 1804, entrusted the supervision of publishing to the central board for school administration of the Ministry of Public Education. The statute prohibited the publication of works that were “inimical to the Orthodox religion and to the autocratic order.” A second statute, adopted in 1826 and known by its contemporaries as “the iron statute,” introduced a great number of petty restrictions that gave censors the right to ban any work at all. Under the statute of 1828, which was formally less restrictive, no new periodical could be published without permission of the emperor Nicholas I. The supervision of publishing was assumed by the central board for censorship under the Ministry of Public Education; local censorship commissions were subordinate to the central board. In practice the functions of censorship were exercised by the Third Section, to which censors had to report instances of “freethinking works” and their authors’ names. The works of A. S. Pushkin, M. Iu. Lermontov, and N. V. Gogol were subjected to severe censorship; N. A. Polevoi’s journal Moskovskii telegraf was closed down in 1834, and N. I. Nadezhdin’s Teleskop in 1836.
The period from 1848 to 1855 went down in the history of Russian literature as the age of terror in censorship. Frightened by the Revolution of 1848–49 in Western Europe, the tsarist regime stiffened its controls over periodicals and literary works, which it regarded as the chief vehicles of revolutionary ideas. A secret committee was established by order of Nicholas I on Apr. 2, 1848, to examine all publications that were already in print; anything that was deemed “contrary to the government’s views” was reported to the tsar. (D. P. Buturlin headed the committee until 1849; N. N. Annenkov, until 1853; and M. A. Korf, until 1856.) Thus punitive censorship was added to the prior censorship system that was already in effect. On the basis of reports by the Buturlin Committee, M. E. Saltykov was deported to Viatka in 1848,1. S. Turgenev was arrested and exiled to Spasskoe-Lutovi-novo in 1852, and the Slavophiles were subjected to persecutions.
The censorship terror reached its apogee after the trial of the Petrashevskii Circle. The Pocket Dictionary of Foreign Words, published by members of the circle, was destroyed. Special circulars were issued prohibiting the publication of research works on such subjects as folklore or the history of popular movements; the number of books, journals, and newspapers published in Russia was drastically reduced.
After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–56 and the death of Nicholas I, the government was led to change its policy by the general quickening of social life, the extensive circulation of uncensored literature in manuscript form, and the establishment abroad of the Free Russian Printing House. The abolition of the Buturlin Committee on Dec. 6, 1855, marked the beginning of censorship reform. A set of temporary regulations on censorship and publishing, issued on Apr. 6, 1865, assigned censorship functions to a central administrative board for publishing; the board was under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which also had jurisdiction over book trade matters, libraries, and printing houses. Prior censorship was no longer required for original works of a length of more than ten printer’s sheets, translated works of more than 20 printer’s sheets, periodicals published in the capital cities by permission of the minister of internal affairs, and works published by the academies and universities. Judicial liability was established for censorship violations; moreover, the confiscation of published material was to be effected by court order. The minister of internal affairs could issue “warnings” to journals and newspapers for “harmful tendencies.” After the third such warning the Senate could order the publication to be suspended for six months or be banned.
The censorship reform of 1865 was one of the least consistent of the bourgeois reforms of the 1860’s and 1870’s. Even so, it was soon reduced to naught by various amendments. In 1868 the minister of internal affairs was given the right to prohibit the retail sale of periodicals. In 1872 the confiscation of published material was made subject to administrative order by the Committee of Ministers. In 1882 the right to prohibit the publication of periodicals was vested in a joint conference of the chief procurator of the Synod and the ministers of internal affairs, justice, and public education.
The censors’ persecutions forced the closure of many newspapers and journals—for example, of Sovremennik and Russkoe slovo in 1866, and of Otechestvennye zapiski in 1884. The press was not allowed to report on political trials, strikes, or peasants’ agitations. In 1895 the censors destroyed the collection Material for a Characterization of Our Economic Development, which contained V. I. Lenin’s article The Economic Content of Narodni-chestvo and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve’s Book. Between 1865 and 1904, a total of 218 books was destroyed, 173 periodicals were given 282 warnings, 218 orders were issued prohibiting retail sales, and 27 publications were suspended. Between 1865 and 1901, ten different journals and 205 books were banned from public libraries and reading rooms; authors whose works were banned included N. G. Chernyshevskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, A. I. Herzen, D. I. Pisarev, L. N. Tolstoy, and N. S. Leskov.
Under pressure of the revolutionary movement, the government issued “temporary regulations” on Nov. 24, 1905, and on Apr. 26, 1906, abolishing the system of prior censorship and again making authors and publishers responsible to the law courts. Nevertheless, the special security system providing for “increased protection” and “emergency protection,” which had been put into effect almost everywhere after the suppression of the December Armed Uprisings of 1905, gave broad scope to arbitrary administrative measures: between October 1905 and January 1907, 361 books were seized, 371 periodicals were closed, and 607 authors and editors were imprisoned or fined. Censorship was continuously used as a weapon of the tsarist regime in the latter’s struggle against the revolutionary movement and against democratic literature and journalism.
The Constitution of the USSR, in accordance with the people’s interests and in order to strengthen and develop the socialist system, guarantees freedom of the press to all citizens. State control has been established in order to prevent the publication of certain news items in the public press and their dissemination through the mass media—namely, news items that reveal state secrets or that may be harmful to the interests of the working people.


Skabichevskii, A. M. Ocherki istorii russkoi tsenzury (1700–1863). St. Petersburg, 1892.
Lemke, M. K. Epokha tsenzurnykh reform, 1859–1865 gg. St. Petersburg, 1904.
Lemke, M. K. Ocherkipo istorii russkoi tsenzury i zhurnalistiki XIX st. St. Petersburg, 1904.
Rozenberg, V., and V. Iakushkin. Russkaia pechat’ i tsenzura v ee proshlom i nastoiashchem. Moscow, 1905.
Nikitenko, A. V. Dnevnik, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1955–56.
Feoktistov, E. M. Vospominaniia: Za kulisami politiki i literatury, 1848–18%. Leningrad, 1929.
Berezhnoi, A. F. Tsarskaia tsenzura i bor’ba bol’shevikov za svobodu pechati (1895–1914). Leningrad, 1967.
Baluev, B. P. Politicheskaia reaktsiia 80-kh godov XIX v. i russkaia zhurnalistika. Moscow, 1971.
Svodnyi katalog russkoi nelegal’noi i zapreshchennoi pechati XIX v., parts 1–9. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


blue laws
restrict personal action to improve community morality. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 87]
arbiter of Puritanical taste as reflected in phrase “banned in Boston.” [Am. Usage: Misc.]
Bowdler, Thomas
(1754–1825) expurgated Shakespeare and Gibbon for family editions. [Br. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 164]
Comstock, Anthony
(1844–1915) in comstockery, immortalized advocate of blue-nosed censorship. [Am. Hist.: Espy, 135]
Fahrenheit 451
describes a future America in which books are prohibited and burned. [Am. Lit.: Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 in Weiss, 289]
Hays, Will
(1879–1954) clean-minded arbiter of 1930s Holly-wood tastes. [Am. Cinema: Griffith, 182]
license given by Roman Catholic Church to publish a book. [Christian Hist.: Misc.]
Index librorum prohibitorum
list of forbidden books compiled by Roman Catholic Church. [Christian Hist.: NCE, 1323]
nihil obstat
Roman Catholic Church’s inscription in books denoting no objection to literary content. [Christian Hist.: Misc.]
Tropic of Cancer
novel noted for its sexual frankness and use of obscenity, long banned in the U.S. [Am. Lit.: Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer]
Joyce novel long banned in U.S. for its sexual frankness. [Irish Lit.: Benét, 1037]
papal bull condemning Quesnel’s Jansenist book (1713). [Christian Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1115]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Psychoanal the activity of the mind in regulating impulses, etc., from the unconscious so that they are modified before reaching the conscious mind
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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RQ3: What are the predominant motivations for book censorship since 1805?
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