The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (as cited in US Legal Law Digest).
This amendment, in no uncertain terms, guarantees United States citizens the rights to:
- Freedom of press
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of assembly
Censorship, however, has been an issue of increasing concern over the past decade or two, as the government seeks to regulate the Internet establish rules and regulations related to the content online (Quain; Associated Press). The reasons for this increase in censorship are many and include:
- An attempt to hide sensitive information from the prying eyes of terrorist organizations
- Preventing and limiting child pornography
- Keeping identity theft to a minimum
This sample from the essay writing services provided by Ultius will examine the history of United States censorship law and highlight current U.S. censorship practices attempting to make sense of a growing and persistent problem.
A history of censorship in the United States
U.S. Legal noted that
“Censorship is at best problematic and at worst dangerous when it tries to silence the voice of the powerless at the behest of the powerful.”
The international history of censorship includes terrible regimes such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China, which censored information in an effort to prevent incriminating and inciting knowledge from reaching their nations’ public or people who might have removed the power of these governments (US Legal). The United States seems to be a paragon of freedom compared to these past governments, but it has its share of censorship. Some forms this censorship include:
- The banning of books in schools and in society by boards of education or local governments
- Television and radio program banning and regulation by government agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
- Altering of certain stories by new media channels (US Legal)
To be fair, the goal of most censorship is a kind of “big brother” form of protection in which it is assumed by a government that its people are better off being ignorant of certain truths. Children are one of the main groups which censorship seeks to protect (US Legal). Even the United States has taken it upon itself to determine that “some information does not need to be censored, and…not all media deserve First Amendment protection” (US Legal).
The Comstock Act
According to U.S. Legal, censorship has always existed in the United States, and internationally, regardless of the First Amendment. Federal anti-obscenity laws protected the people of the U.S.; however federal and state governments did not mandate censorship until 1973, with the introduction of the Comstock Act. Following the invention of movable type and the Printing Revolution of the 15th century, there was a movement to suppress literature of “obscene literature” in the United States. The Comstock Act was created by Anthony Comstock:
“a zealous crusader against what he considered to be obscenity” (US Legal).
The act expressly prohibited the publication, distribution, or possession of information about “unlawful” medical devices or medications related to abortion or contraception, or “materials from abroad”. Roe v. Wade finally removed the language concerning contraception and abortion in 1973; however language remains that allowed the expansion of the distribution of abortion-related information on the Internet (Encyclopædia Britannica).
Censorship today in the United States
Censorship in the United States today still exists; some prominent examples include book, music, and electronic censorship related to the Internet (US Legal). The Comstock Act:
“Criminalized importation, mailing, and transportation of printed material containing lewd or lascivious material, even personal letters. Violators might serve time in prison or receive heavy fines” (US Legal).
Some examples of books that were banned by this Act include Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Following the reign of the Watch and Ward Society in Boston during the 1920s, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began fighting this censorship and won the right for Ulysses by James Joyce to be imported to the U.S. in 1933, as well as an uncensored version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.
Various court cases in the 1950s contested the Comstock Act and passed new legislation that decreased censorship on materials printed within and imported into the United States, including Butler v. State of Michigan, Jacobellis v. Ohio, Memoirs v. Attorney General of Massachusetts; and Board of Education v. Pico, which found that school boards cannot remove books from school libraries without reason (US Legal). This resulted in the reinstatement of books such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Best Short Stories of Negro Writers edited by Langston Hughes. Today people still crusade for the banning of certain books, but the practice is much less pervasive.
The music industry has a long and illustrious past of censorship, which has only recently been challenged. Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” was banned for a reference to cocaine; as were Bob Dylan’s songs in El Paso, Texas, simply because the broadcasters found them too hard to understand – and possibly because of his subversive status. Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) forced adoption of a rating system and a parental warning sticker for explicit music in 1990, and the National Political Congress of Black Women’s Delores Tucker addressed Time-Warner on the deplorable promotion of violence and misogyny in rap lyrics.
While these reactions to objectionable lyrics are understandable, there is always a choice in buying music. Clear Channel’s knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by suggesting 150 songs that shouldn’t be played on the air because the lyrics were “related” to airplanes or fire is an example of overstepping the boundaries of censorship (US Legal). Emotions run high in the censorship game, and artists still continually fight for the right to express themselves in a world that often attempts to censor unpopular opinions.
Freedom of the press is a concept that has been in practice since John Peter Zenger won a libel case against William Cosby, a chief justice in New York. The court found that Zenger could not be charged with libel if the statements he printed about Cosby were true. That precedent still holds today, but this does not mean that there is no censorship in the United States press; censorship is common during wartime to prevent sensitive information from reaching enemy ears, and public figures are often granted more privacy in the press than people of lesser stature might be.
At times, private parties may be protected by press beneficiaries for financial reasons, but these are not examples of government-sanctioned censorship. The press is also protected by the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, which protects the public right to governmental information from any federal agency (US Legal). We now refer to this as transparency, and there is a growing trend toward it in the United States and abroad, which is causing corporations to begin transparency campaigns, as well.
The Internet is the new frontier of censorship, and the fight has become vicious in recent years. As the last unregulated frontier of information exchange, the Internet has become a refuge for some shadier portions of U.S. and international society, resulting in the “dark web,” or black market and illegal dealings such as:
In an effort to curb these activities, as well as keep sensitive information out of enemy hands, the United States has passed numerous censorious and regulating laws over the past decade (Cox). The regulating began with 1996’s Communications Decency Act (CDA) which prohibited Internet posting of indecent of patently offensive material; the Supreme Court dismantled the Act the next year because it’s “reach was too broad”. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was passed in 1998, and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was passed in 2000; both instated criminal penalties for the distribution of indecent materials to minors online, and introduced school and library computer filters to protect the public. In 2003, the CAN-SPAM Act attacked the spam email industry, but did not seem to have much impact (US Legal).
Challenges to free speech in the United States
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS), established in 1972, was designed to
“promote a full partnership between NSA and the cryptologic elements of the armed forces” (NSA).
It’s “Prism Program” gives it far-reaching surveillance power over Internet communications, raising concerns over citizens’ free speech and privacy right. The citizens of the U.S. are also threatened by the Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case, which allowed corporations and unions the same free speech rights as individuals beginning in 2010 (Index on Censorship). According to the Index on Censorship, an international censorship watchdog organization,
“The US requests more user data than any other country and issues the second most court orders for content removal behind Brazil.”
Intellectual property rights are a booming and highly contested business in the United States, and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were protested by activists and web companies as unconstitutional (Index on Censorship). The United States Patriot Act and US Telecommunication companies’ compliance with government requests for what Americans believed were private conversations on smartphones and over the Internet have led to widespread dissent among the American people over which information should be private and which should (Index on Censorship).
Google empowers censorship in America
According to Google’s policy analyst Dorothy Chou, Google’s “transparency report” revealed that many Internet search censorship requests are:
“from countries you might not suspect – Western democracies not typically associated with censorship” (Sutter).
Google can make its own decisions regarding these requests for removal of links to certain websites from others, or to articles which defame or publish undesirable information about public figures, fortunately (Sutter). All in all, Google was asked to remove 6,192 content pieces from search results, blog posts, or online video archives by U.S. governmental agencies, which is 718% higher than six months prior (Sutter). As an example, Google complied with 42% of the U.S. requests in 2011, Sutter stated. In 2011, 6,321 user data requests from U.S. government agencies involves in criminal cases were sent to Google, and the company complied with 93% of them (Sutter).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) continues to fight for individuals’ rights concerning censorship, but stated that
“at least thirteen states have passed [cyberspace censorship] legislation since 1995…and bills are pending in 10 other states” (ACLU).
Censorship in the United States continues to face strong public opposition, as various organizations and people unite to oppose the new pending bills and protect their right to free speech.
American Civil Liberties Union. “Online Censorship in the States.” ACLU. ACLU, 2015. n.d.
Associated Press. “U.S. Sets New Record for Denying, Censoring Government Files.” Huffington Post. The Huffington Post.com, Inc., 2015. Web. 18 March 2015.
Cox, Joseph. “The Dark Web as you Know it is a Myth.” Wired. Condé Nast, n.d. Web. 18 June 2015.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Comstock Act.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encylopædia Britannica, 2015. Web. n.d.
Index on Censorship. “United States: Free Expression Constrained by Cultural and Political Factors.” Index on Censorship. Index on Censorship, n.d. Web. 22 August 2013.
National Security Agency. “About NSA.” NSA. National Security Agency, 2009. Web. 29 November 2011.
Sutter, John D. “Google Reports ‘Alarming’ Rise in Government Censorship Requests.” CNN. Cable News Network, 2015. Web. 19 June 2012.
US Legal Law Digest. “United States censorship: First Amendment Law – Censorship – United States.” Law Digest. US Legal, Inc., 2015. Web. n.d.