- To censor is to suppress communication that is deemed destructive of the common good. Thus censorship is usually associated with the exercise of authority over individuals. In Western society the term dates back to ancient Rome, where control over the moral character of the community was deemed an essential role of government. In conducting the census, the patrician censor excluded from public rights those whose beliefs did not meet the needs of the regime. In modern usage the concept has become rather more complex, seen as central to the well-being of the individual and the community but also synonymous with the abuse of power of governments over individuals. There are two related sets of justifications which structure modern manifestations of censorship. The first set of concerns is embodied in legislation such as the UK Official Secrets Act, a mechanism for safeguarding not only military secrecy but also the everyday running of vital state services. Here the focus of censorship is political; it is a pre-emptive and punitive legislative framework designed to facilitate the everyday governance of the community, through the establishing of a set of proscribed rules and a framework for punishing those who contravene them.Other forms are more educational in nature, and have to do with moulding the character and morality of people. This type of censorship takes many forms. For example, contemporary concerns regarding the role of the media are expressed in laws such as defamation, which prohibits speech or writing designed to injure or offend, and obscenity, which prohibits that which is likely to deprave or corrupt (especially children). Legislation of this kind gives rise to an additional form of censorship, namely selfcensorship, the act of restraining one’s expression for fear of external suppression.The concept of censorship carries a negative charge, reflecting the centrality of the status of the individual in prevailing Western notions of liberal democracy. The premise of John Milton’s Areopagita, a tract published in 1644 denouncing the insidious prohibition of press freedom by the state, is re-echoed in contemporary debates concerning free expression. The infamous Spycatcher case of 1987 marked a triumph of free speech over state censorship; a government injunction preventing the publication of sensitive material was overturned in the High Court. The emergence of new systems of communication and information distribution has further revived discussions of the proper role of censorship, with concerns focused upon the free exchange of data facilitated by new technologies.Further readingKelly, S. (1978) Access Denied, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.MATTHEW GRICE
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