Censorship is a major political issue in democratic countries. This is especially the case in United States where no less than the Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression. Hence, curtailment of speech tends to be met with much dissent and censorship policies have to overcome several hurdles before they are passed into law and eventually implemented.
This article will provide a brief overview of censorship as it is understood and implemented in the United States.
What is censorship?
To better understand censorship in the United States, we must first define the term “censorship”. In simple terms, censorship refers to the suppression of speech, public communication, and similar forms of expression. Censorship may take various forms, either limiting or altogether prohibiting certain forms of expression. Censorship tends to take the form of penal laws, thereby taking certain forms of expression outside the purview and protection of the constitutional guarantee to free speech.
What is censorship in the United States?
Censorship in the United States pertain to the ways in which speech and expression is limited in the country. More specifically, it refers to the ways by which the American government, limits, prohibits, or alters speech, performances, media, communications, and such other similar forms of expression. The basis of censorship tends to vary depending on the censorship law in question, but generally such censorship is made on the basis of the presumption or determination that the speech or expression in question is either offensive or harmful to the public. Considering how subjective the terms “offensive”, “harmful”, or “dangerous” can be, the implementation of censorship laws tends to vary widely from one state to another and typically face legal contentions.
How does the First Amendment affect censorship laws?
The greatest legal hurdle that censorship laws have to overcome is that posed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. To put it simply, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, and protects the same from government intervention and censorship. The freedom of speech and expression is part and parcel of democracy, and, as such, the First Amendment has a wide scope and allows for a limited number of exceptions to the general rule prohibiting government censorship.
It is worth mentioning that censorship has existed in the US since the time of British colonization. Over the years, however, the subject matter of censorship laws has shifted from speech which are political in nature to those which are ruled as either dangerous or offensive to the public.
What forms of speech and expression are typically censored?
The protection afforded by the First Amendment is very broad in scope. That said, in order to understand censorship laws in the US, one must look at the forms of speech and expression which are typically subject to government censorship, thereby making the same exceptions to the First Amendment.
Speech and expression pertaining to these three matters are typically covered by censorship laws:
1. Those which must be kept secret for purposes of public safety or national security;
2. Those which depicts graphic or excessive violence; and
3. Those which are pornographic in nature and are designed to serve prurient interests.
How is censorship in the US implemented?
Depending on the censorship law in question and the type of speech or expression involved, censorship can take various forms and is implemented in varying degrees. For example, a material subject to censorship may altogether be prohibited from being broadcasted or published. In certain cases, the specific subject matter may just be obscured. This is typically done by blurring certain parts of visual media which are deemed to be too offensive or graphic. In the case of radio broadcast, offensive words may undergo “radio edits”, that is, the same may be omitted altogether or replaced with non-offensive words. For television or movies, certain scenes may be deleted, images may be blurred, or offensive words may be bleeped. Again, the form of censoring a particular form of speech or expression widely varies depending on the censorship law in question, and those who refuse to comply may be penalized.
How does American law treat censorship?
The freedom of speech and expression, considering the protection afforded to the same by the US Constitution, is considered paramount and, as such, is given primacy over competing interests. That said, anything which impedes or violates this constitutional guarantee may be subjected to judicial review. This rule applies to censorship laws in the US. Generally, however, courts do not look favorably upon censorship laws and tend to rule in favor of upholding the right to free speech. In order to be ruled valid and constitutional, the government must first be able to successfully show that it has compelling reason to limit or interfere with the right to free speech and expression.
Controversy surrounding censorship laws is more pertinent in broadcast media. In the past, courts have been more lenient in upholding the censorship of broadcast media given the scarcity of radio waves or frequencies. As new technology and media emerge, however, censoring broadcast media based on the scarcity of resources have become less viable. Given the digital age and the advent of the internet, censorship laws have once again become subject to legal contentions. Hence, it has become incumbent for the government to provide compelling reasons as to why certain restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression must be upheld by the courts.
Censorship in the United States is a broad and lengthy topic given the plethora of cases which show how the courts have treated censorship laws in the country over the years. Such cases demonstrate the interplay between censorship and the First Amendment within the context of evolving times and technology. The Internet, for one, has given rise to issues which have not existed in the past, thereby forcing the government to come up with new mechanisms of protecting the public interest. At the same time, the prevalence of social media has created new conversations with regard to which particular forms of speech and expression are protected under the First Amendment.