In the 1940s, a government arrested an individual for comments in personal correspondence criticizing a leader. He spent many years in prison camps and eventually in 1974 lost his citizenship and was expelled from his country for other writings criticizing the government (100 Banned Books, eds. Karolides, Bald, and Sova, pp. 56-63).
In the United States in the 1960s, a number of officials (politicians, teachers) wrote their objections to a history textbook chosen for the local school district. Their concern was that coverage of certain topics was overtly biased and inaccurately presented. The book was eventually revised (Ibid, pp. 94-103).
Parents in Sparta, Illinois, expressed concern about Stephen King novels that are in the school library. They were concerned that the objectionable elements in the books far outweighed any pedagogical value. Eventually all came to an agreement that the books would require parental permission to be checked out (Ibid, p. 373).
In August 2008, Random House canceled its scheduled release of The Jewel of Medina, over concerns of Muslim violence. The novel is a fictionalized perspective of the Prophet Mohammed’s wife Aisha (Wikipedia article. See footnotes for extensive references.)
Here is how the ALA defines some terms.
Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it! ” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone (ALA, “Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A“).
By the ALA’s definitions, all the examples above represent censorship of an evil sort. At the same time, most Americans quickly recognize that there is a significant difference between a person imprisoned for his political writings, and a teacher pressured by parents to refrain from assigning a book with explicit sexual content in his seventh grade class. As well, parents and teachers both recognize that not all viewpoints are of equal value when deciding what information to teach in a limited school day. All the examples may be of censorship, but they are not all the same. The ALA attempts to make them equal, but the attempt falls flat.
In what other ways does censorship differ?
Consider who censors? Governments? Parents? Citizens? Society as a whole?
When is it censored? Before publication? After?
How is it censored? Threat of death or imprisonment? Threat of osterization? Intimidation? Bullying? Contempt? Loss of a job? Loss of respect? Self-imposed Fear?
For whom is it censored? For all people in a country? For a community in small-town America? For a university student body? For children? For a kindergarten class? For a family?
In what location is it censored? In every bookstore? The internet? From speakers of languages different than the original work?
For what purpose is it censored? Fear of corrupting the would-be audience? Lack of literary or moral merit? Priorities of funds or other financial considerations? Disagreement with censored works? Fear of repercussions?
Clearly, on first glance, not all censorship is equal, and upon closer inspection, the variables are great. It is true, as the ALA reminds us, that in all types of censorship, someone (or a group of someones) is attempting to limit in some way access to some type of media. There are also similarities between a tennis ball and apple, but it does not follow that we should eat them both.
In order to evaluate whether we should respond to all censorship in the same way, we must now ask ourselves, Is all censorship evil? We’ll discuss this question next.
For further reading, read Stanley Fish’s assessment of the Jewel of Medina situation here. I was thrilled to read his analysis.