Censorship is the suppression of information: thoughts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs. Authority figures, such as governments, censor information they feel shouldnít be communicated to the public.
At Any Time...
Information can be censored at any time. The person who communicates the information may "censor" him or her self by avoiding inappropriate information entirely, not because they want to but in fear of punishment. The information may be censored after it is written but before public distribution, or at least before the entire public has enough time to reach it. Finally, the communicator of the indecent information may be punished following its dissemination (distribution).
Censorship is among the most intriguing ethical dilemmas in todayís society. The basic concepts of democracy include the right to protection and freedom to communicate. People should have the right to form their own opinions, thoughts and beliefs. But this includes things that arenít always acceptable in our society. Christian church groups donít want people to be exposed to religions they feel are "evil", such as Satanism, and parents donít want their kids to turn on the television and view pornography. While most people agree with these views, others (such as Satanists and pornographers) donít find some of these types of information objectionable, and feel they have the right to this type of information. In a world where everyone is so different, so filled with culture, itís difficult to satisfy everyoneís needs.
Every society has had basic - usually unwritten - "rules" on what was and was not acceptable for citizens to do, say, wear, and worship. Even the ancient democratic city of Athens had censorship. When Socrates was charged with worshipping false gods and corrupting the cityís youth, he preferred to commit suicide than live without his intellectual freedom. Later however, his student, Plato, ironically developed a rationale for intellectual, religious, and artistic censorship, outlining an ideal - censured - state in The Republic. Many well known philosophers had all of their works destroyed. Despite these acts, Athens is still considered a place where you could have spoken openly in private or public.
Meanwhile, in Rome, it was considered that only authorities could truly speak freely. Authors of unacceptable works were punished, even banished or burned alive. But the Roman Empire had to have some tolerance in order to survive, as it ruled over nations of various religions and races. Jews and Christians outside of the capital often refused to worship the imperial figurehead (idolatry is against their respective religions), and were sometimes persecuted, but all citizens inside Rome were required to.
Today in North America
Today, most democratic countries, such as Canada and the United States, have laws that allow the public to express themselves freely, as well as laws that protect their citizens from information they are severely offended by. But these laws often contradict each other. Courts are often faced with the decision of whether someoneís right to communicate freely has harmed someone. But there are regulations to prevent problems. In the case of nude photography, North American publications often state their models have reached the age of maturity, and vendors are not to sell such magazines to children. Many schools avoid educational materials that discuss religion or contain unnecessary objectionable material, such as sex, sometimes even omitting sections of classic novels describing sex.
As the 20th century has progressed, North American society has become more open and less conservative. When television became popular married couples on classic family sit-coms slept in separate beds. Until the 1970ís the US Postal Service refused to deliver certain This year Ellen DeGeneras declared she was gay by "coming out" on the controversial hour long special episode of her ABC comedy, Ellen. Also this year television networks in the US began incorporating a content advisory system into their programming, attaching a signal to the TV transmission that allowed special microchip to block content parents might find unacceptable for their children to view, and flashed a small ratings logo at the beginning of each show, something that has already been done for movies and video and computer games.
Citizens of democratic countries have many basic rights that are taken for granted. These nations are not governed by religion, and a personís religious beliefs and forms of worship are their own choices. Meanwhile, in communist countries citizens donít have these rights. Atheism was the standard ideology in the former USSR, and religion was rarely recognized for anyone. In the 70ís Iran was quickly becoming "westernized", among the most developed countries in the region, but a revolution quickly reinstituted strict Islamic laws, and the country regressed.
Even England has had problems with censorship in its past, due to religious control. In the 17th century a surveyor of the press had the power to prevent information from being published, and publishing negative opinions of the government became "seditious libel ".
In the late 1980ís a study conducted by Freedom House stated 2 billion people on earth had high degrees of freedom, 1 billion had moderate freedom, and 2.1 billion people lived in 68 countries that severely denied citizens political and civil rights.
While this decade will see many censorship barriers broken and more progress in human rights, the 90ís have also brought a major problem: The Internet. Anyone can communicate in Cyberspace, and anyone from any country can access information originating in a different nation. So, what is acceptable in some countries is not in others, and this has been a serious problem. Not long ago, China even considered outlawing Internet access, and countries like Germany are outraged at the content that is being distributed electronically. Several "patchwork" solutions have been developed, such as software that "filters" selected information, and RSAC (see link) ratings embedded in HTML pages similar (including this site) to ratings used on movies, games, and television. But because the Internet is a global place owned and governed by nobody, true regulation is almost impossible. It is up to the individual country to set guidelines on what is and isnít acceptable, and governments must co-operate in criminal investigations. When the United States proposed its Communication Decency Act (CDA), many people of the online community were outraged. Thousands put up blue ribbon logos on their websites to voice their opposition to regulation, and hundreds of major sites "went black" for a day, making their website black and white. The problem is not expected to be solved anytime soon.
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