How Censorship Works: A Primer (There Will Be A Test)

Dear my beloved internets, it has come to my attention that many of you are somewhat deficient on the topic of censorship. Namely, you don’t know what it is, and you seem to be struggling with this subject, which often makes it difficult to have fascinating, complex, and important discussions about a wide range of topics, as you persist in derailing them with cries of ‘censorship!’ In the interest of the world at large, I thought I’d assemble a little primer for you on censorship so you could better understand the issue.

I hope this settles the matter. Please, let us never speak of this again.

Censorship is the suppression of speech by a government. Let’s say, for example, that one day this site is taken down by order of the US government. I cannot appeal, they refuse to reinstate the content, and when I try to mirror it elsewhere, the mirror is taken down. The government effectively makes it impossible for me to communicate. This is censorship, because the government has decided that my words should not reach the public.

I happen to live in the United States, where the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Some Supreme Court decisions have explored this amendment and found some particular instances in which freedom of speech may be compromised ‘in the interest of safety.’ Thus, while I in theory have unlimited free expression, there are certain situations in which my speech may be suppressed. For example, if I attempt to incite violence or would endanger people with my speech, it can be suppressed. If I am a government employee, my First Amendment rights are also somewhat curtailed in respect to certain activities.

Thus, the government could take this site down if it included an incitement to violence, but not if I criticised the Obama administration.

Not everyone lives in the United States, which means that ‘freedom of speech’ is not a global universal. This is important to remember, as, shockingly, the internet appears to be available (though not always accessible, and not universally) worldwide, which would seem to suggest that some people on it may be subject to their own freedom of speech and censorship laws. This is because not everyone lives in the grand old USofA, where our blood runs red, white, and blue and we can say whatever we want. Mostly. Sometimes. Within limits.

If I were living in China, for instance, the government would have the authority to shut down this site if they wanted to. We can have a discussion about limitations on free speech globally and the ethics therein, and that’s an important conversation to have, but that is a conversation distinct from accusations of censorship in specific instances.

So. Individuals cannot censor each other. This is an important part of the lesson. Let’s take a classic example from the internet: someone posts a comment, and the website owner declines to publish it. The commenter then wails about ‘censorship.’ This is a false accusation, as a website owner or moderator is not equivalent to a government. The commenter is free to republish the comment elsewhere and to distribute it through a variety of means. No one is fundamentally limiting the commenter’s right to speak, but the moderator is choosing to curate a discussion of a particular nature on a given website.

Think of it this way: if you came into my house and shat on my rug, I would probably kick you out. Likewise, if I was hosting a dinner party and you suddenly started spewing racist commentary, I’d invite you to leave. You are welcome to go shit on rugs and be racist elsewhere; I am not confining your freedom of speech or movement, I’m just choosing not to allow these things in a specific space I maintain.

Still think this would be a violation of ‘free speech’? The Supreme Court has actually ruled that in fact this is perfectly reasonable. For example, the free speech rights of students on school grounds are restricted on the grounds that school administrators need to be able to maintain a safe environment. We could have a larger conversation about the suppression of dissent and commentary among students, and how schools abuse this, but again, that’s not a conversation for right now.

Criticism is also not censorship. If I write a piece about how terrible a television show is, that isn’t censorship. Not even if I call for it to be canceled, or discuss specific content in the show that I find unacceptable. Not even if it’s a badly-written, poorly-argued piece. Critiquing and commenting on art, society, and cultural issues is a form of social engagement, and it’s definitely not censorship.

Critics, especially those who tackle issues like racism and sexism, are often accused of ‘censoring’ the people or media they’re critiquing. Which is puzzling, because not only does said media continue to run in most cases, but critics, the last time I checked, are not governments.

Let’s recap: censorship is the suppression of expression by government actors.

Now, quiz time:

1. Mary Sue posts a comment on Awesome Blog, yet it never emerges from moderation. Has she been censored?

2. Lenore uploads a video to YouTube, criticising a new government policy. Two days later, it’s removed without explanation. When she contacts YouTube to ask them what happened, it transpires that it was taken down by government order. Has she been censored?

3. Lee Mei contributes an essay to a critical anthology, discussing the role of disability in Doctor Who. Is she censoring Doctor Who?

4. Commenter Sigrid is repeatedly warned by moderators for posting offensive comment on Pop Culture Blog. After refusing to heed the warnings, she’s banned from commenting. Has she been censored?

5. Activist Adedewe comments on Twitter that she went to a comedy show last night and was deeply offended by the racist content. She goes on, in a series of Tweets, to talk about racism in comedy and why it’s a problem. Is she censoring the comic? Comics in general? Comedy as a genre?