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Updated: 06/15/1213


If you can't defend what is unpalatable to you personally, then you don't actually believe in free speech.  You only believe in the free speech of those who agree with you.

Salman Rushdie, noted author


Internet Censorship

>>History has shown that when it comes to censorship, there is almost nothing that someone, somewhere won't object to -- and try to ban.

Countries such as China, Iran and North Korea censor ideas and images on the Internet.* In a few countries illegal Internet use can result in a decade or two in prison.  

>>The futility of effective Internet censorship efforts -- no matter how well meaning -- is demonstrated in the following examples.

In a well-documented effort to censor Internet materials a major U.S. online service attempted to filter out all sites with objectionable words. The word "breast" became part of the list.

Unfortunately, this immediately impacted women's health discussion groups (breast cancer; breast feeding), the exchange of favorite recipes (which include chicken breasts) and even fishing groups (red-breasted bream, a type of sunfish).

In a further effort to screen out pornographic images a company developed filtering software that could supposedly recognize pornographic images. Unfortunately, the software also filtered out such things as photos of landscapes and various classic works of art.

A study released in late 2002, conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, found that in many instances, the federally-mandated filtering software commonly used in U.S. schools is denying people access to information on such health topics as diabetes, depression, sexually transmitted diseases, and suicide.

In particular, the study warned of the harmful effect on young people who may be reluctant to otherwise seek details on such subjects from adults.

Health issues aside, according to author Marjorie Heins, when obscenity laws do not allow children to learn to confront and deal with real-world issues, it  makes them vulnerable to these issues in later life.  As a result, she says, these laws end up doing young people more harm than good. 

>>Attempts at censoring ideas often add to the attraction of the targeted materials, which, in turn, has often given them a greater audience.

This was first demonstrated with a relatively low-budget film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which probably few people would have seen  -- until it became a focus of religious demonstrations. 

More recently, The Davinci Code also appeared to reap the benefits of major opposition.

>>Although censorship efforts may impact readily available materials, given the Internet's potential to instantly reroute, encrypt, and repackage information, an astute computer user with a willing Internet friend anywhere in the world can work around most roadblocks.  In short, "If there's a will there's a way."

At the same time many people feel that certain words and types of images should be banned -- especially from children and young people.  It is assumed that this material is "harmful to minors."

Although little research has been done on the effects of these materials on minors, empirical research with normal adults does not appear to support a negative effect. This issue is addressed in detail here.

Censorship In School Libraries

>>Overt moves to censor books take place in about 20 percent of U.S. schools each year -- with unreported efforts far exceeding this percent.

Things that have been censored include Shakespeare's plays and many books considered "classics." Webster's New World Dictionary has even been banned in at least one case because it contains some "objectionable words."  

Even though librarians, in general, oppose censorship efforts, many public schools and libraries have bowed to pressure by some politicians parents to use filtering software to limit Internet access. Some conservative religious schools in the United States filter out all Internet material that conflicts with their views -- including at one point  material at CyberCollege and the InternetCampus.

Under the U.S. Patriot Act libraries can be required to turn over the lists of books patrons check out. Objecting to this or trying to legally fight it is against the law.

This is not well known because librarians are legally prohibited from discussing these government actions.

Using the same legal justifications, the government can trace files accessed in public and personal computers that are linked to the Internet. 

>>Even art museums in the United States have not escaped censorship action.

In the words of Los Angeles Times columnist, Christopher Knight, "In the spring of 1990, a lose constellation of Cincinnati bluenoses, religious fanatics, gay-bashers, right-wing politicians up for reelection, and assorted others among the citizenry began to circle around the director of a local art museum...."  

They succeeded in not only canceling an exhibit, but also in virtually destroying the director's family and career. Such is the fear that some people have of words and pictures.

>>Censorship of films started at the earliest possible moment in the United States with the censorship of a 60-second experimental film by Thomas Edison called, The Widow Jones (aka: The Kiss), based on a popular stage play of the time. (At that time kissing was viewed as inappropriate for the public to witness.)

Salman Rushdie, who is quoted at the beginning of this article, had to hide out for years after a religious group, which objected to one of his books, took out a contract on his life. Several of the people who translated the book were stabbed, shot, or killed.

Is Education the Solution?

>>Possibly the only real solution to all this is to educate people -- young people in particular -- to critically, and, yes, even morally, evaluate the sea of information that is now instantly available from around the world.

With adequate education and information, superior ideas -- if they really are superior -- shouldn't have to fear inferior ideas. "It is forbidden," "Thou shalt not," or even "It's against the law," is no longer enough; we have to be able to clearly, logically, and convincingly justify our opposition.

* Not only is there government supported, if not mandated, censorship of the Internet in schools and libraries but, according to The New York Times, when  President Bush came into office, information that supported the effectiveness of condoms in the prevention of disease, as well as studies that show the use of condoms do not result in earlier sexual activity, disappeared from government health sites.

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