censorship: 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.

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).

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.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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