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  Censorship and Free Speech

There is no society - in the past or in the present - free of censorship, the enforced restriction of speech. It is not restricted to authoritarian regimes. Democratic societies too aim at the control of the publication and distribution of information in order to prevent unwanted expressions. In every society some expressions, ideas or opinions are feared. Censored are books, magazines, films and videos, and computer games, e.g.

In defence of its monopoly of truth, the Catholic Church published a blacklist of books not allowed to be read: the Index librorum prohibitorum. As indicated by the fact that every declaration of human rights - including the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights - embraces free expression, democratic societies censorship is not imposed to protect a monopoly on truth or to foster the prevailing orthodoxy, as it seems. (With the remarkable exceptions of the prohibition of Nazi or Nazi-like publications and censorship practiced during wartime.) On the contrary, it is the point of free speech that we do not know the truth, that truth is something to strive for in a kind of public discourse or exchange intended to contribute to or even to constitute democracy. So "we cannot think coherently about free speech independently of issues about equality." (Susan Dwyer, A Plea to Ignore the Consequences of Free Speech, in: Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, January 1, 1996, Racist expressions prove that. There are good reasons for supporting censorship to avoid violations of human dignity, as there are reasons to support unrestricted discussions of all topics.

To a high degree the Protestant Reformation was made possible by the invention of the printing press. Now those who were capable of writing and reading no longer needed to rely on the priests to know what is written in the Bible. They could compare the Bible with the sermons of the priests. This may be one of the reasons why especially in countries with a strong Protestant or otherwise anti-catholic tradition (with the exception of Germany), free speech is held in such high esteem.

There seems to be no alternative: free speech without restriction or censorship. But censorship is not the only kind of restriction of speech. Speech codes as politically correct speech are restrictions, sometimes similar to censorship; copyright, accessibility and affordability of means of communication are other ones. Because of such restrictions different to censorship, we cannot think coherently about free speech independently of issues about social justice. Many campaigns for free speech, the right of free expression are backed by the concept of free speech as unconstrained speech. That is perfectly well understood under the auspices of regimes prominently, which try to silence their critics and restrict access to their publications. But the concept of free speech should not solely focus on such constrains. Thinking of free speech as unconstrained speech, we tend to forget to take into account - to campaign against - these other restrictions. Additionally, free expression understood in that way offers no clue how to practice this freedom of expression and what free speech is good for.

In liberal democratic societies censorship is not justified by recurring to absolute truth. Its necessity is argued by referring to personal integrity. Some kind of expression might do harm to individuals, especially to children, by traumatize them or by disintegrating personal morality. Some published information, such as the names of rape victims, might infringe some people's right on privacy or some, as others say, such as pornographic images or literature, e.g., infringes some people's right on equality (how?).

For more information on the history of censorship see The File Room Project.

browse Report:
0   Censorship and Free Speech
+1   The Privatization of Censorship
+2   Anonymity
+3   Eliminating online censorship: Freenet, Free Haven and Publius
+4   Censored links: Linking as a crime