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Blasphemy, Heresy, And Atheism, Political Subversion, The Netherlands And England, From Bayle To Constant

Censorship comprises many methods of preventing the publication or dissemination of speech, printed matter, art, theater, music, electronic media, or other forms of expression. The most common subjects that are censored are religion, politics, and sex. The usual justification is that such expression is subversive, blasphemous, heretical, obscene, pornographic, or otherwise offensive or harmful. Censorship can take place before publication, known as prior restraint, in the form of requirements such as licensing and prior review. It can also take place after publication in such forms as banning, burning, or boycotting of the published product and fining, imprisonment, or the death penalty for the author or publisher.

The English term is derived from the ancient Roman institution of the censors, two elected magistrates responsible for overseeing the morals of the Roman people and who could warn or ban certain people or behavior at will. In later times censorship has often been carried out by individuals or committees appointed by religious or political authorities, but it can also be carried out by self-appointed vigilantes. The term has been expanded to include self-censorship, in which one does not express something for fear of the consequences, and market censorship, in which suppression of a publication is caused by the refusal of advertisers to advertise in it or of the public to buy it.

The political ideology of modern liberalism is generally against censorship on the ground that it limits freedom unnecessarily. By far the largest body of reflection on censorship has been written by its opponents. Those who are in a position to impose censorship have usually done it without articulating their reasons in any depth. Communitarian and autocratic ideologies such as socialism, national socialism, communism, absolute monarchism, and theocracy have generally done little more than assert that censorship protects the community and its leaders against perceived threats. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there has been an upsurge in articulation of justifications for censorship. Radical feminists and spokespersons for ethnic, religious, or formerly colonized groups have supported censorship of pornography, "hate speech," and criticism of themselves, pointing to the harm that uncensored expression can do.

Sex has been the target of much censorship. Objectionable sexual material is variously labeled obscene, pornographic, indecent, or degrading. Obscenity has been defined as having a tendency to deprave or corrupt; as appealing to prurient interest; or as being offensive to prevailing moral standards. Pornography has been defined as explicit depiction of sexual behavior intended to cause arousal. Censorship of these matters is sometimes limited to shielding younger age-groups, and it is sometimes claimed that this type of censorship should only be applied if there is no redeeming scientific, artistic, or political value to sexual materials. Since the 1980s, censorship has been justified by the argument that pornography is equivalent to rape.

Almost no one believes in absolute freedom of expression. Libel, slander, and defamation are prohibited by nearly every legal code. These prohibitions are not usually considered to be censorship, but rather a part of tort law.

It is widely accepted that prior restraint is more effective at preventing expression than postpublication censorship. The requirement to submit items for approval may intimidate someone into not submitting something that might actually be approved or that might not attract negative attention if it were published. Postpublication punishment is rarely fully effective: the censors might miss a few items entirely, and when books or recordings that have already been published are destroyed, a few copies can often be saved surreptitiously.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to Chimaera