History of Censorship in US Media Term Paper

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History of Censorship in U.S. Media

Censorship is the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression that is believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order, and may be imposed by local or national governmental authority, by a religious body, or even by a powerful private group (Censorship pp). These bans or restrictions may be applied to the mails, speech, the press, the theater, dance, art, literature, photography, the cinema, radio, television or computer networks (Censorship pp). Censorship may be either preventive or punitive, depending of whether it is exercised before or after the public expression (Censorship pp). Censorship has been in use since antiquity and has been especially practiced under autocratic and heavily centralized governments, from the Roman Empire to the totalitarian states of the twentieth century (Censorship pp). Censorship has existed in the Untied States since colonial times, with its emphasis, through time, shifting from the political to the sexual (Censorship pp).

There were recurrent attempts to suppress the political freedom of the press in the American colonies, however one victory against censorship was the trial of John Peter Zenger, an American journalist who had emigrated to America from Germany in 1710, and began the New York Weekly Journal in 1733 (Censorship pp). Zenger's publication was an opposition paper to the New York Gazette and to the policies of Governor William Cosby, and although most of the articles were written by Zenger's backers, such as prominent lawyers and merchants, Zenger was held legally responsible and arrested on libel charges and imprisoned in 1734 (Censorship pp). Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton, who established truth as defense in cases of libel, and the 1735 trial resulted in the Zenger's acquittal and helped to establish freedom of the press in America (Censorship pp).

Although the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, speech and religion, there have been examples of official political censorship, such as the actions taken under the Sedition act of 1798, which was devised to silence Republican criticism of the Federalists (Censorship pp). The Act's broad proscription of spoken or written criticism of the government, Congress or the President actually nullified the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press, and many prominent Jeffersonians, most of them journalists, were tried, and some convicted in sedition proceedings (Censorship pp). Other examples include the suppression of abolitionist literature in the antebellum South and local attempts during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to repress publications considered radical, such as during the Cold War when many Americans tried to keep textbooks and teaching they considered deleterious to "the American form of government" out of schools and colleges (Censorship pp). The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 stated that, with some exceptions, the public has the right of access to government records (Censorship pp). In 1971, this issue was challenged with several major newspapers published a secret government study known as the Pentagon Papers, and although the government sued to stop publication, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers (Censorship pp).

Long before World War I there were vigilante attacks on what was considered obscene literature, such as those led by Anthony Comstock, and in 1873, the United States Post Office expanded its ban on the shipment of obscene literature and art (Censorship pp). Comstock was a morals crusader who served with the Union army during the Civil War and was later active as an anti-abortionist and in advocating the suppression of obscene literature (Censorship pp). He authored the comprehensive New York state statue of 1868 forbidding immoral works and in 1873 secured stricter federal postal legislation against obscene material and also organized the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (Censorship pp). Until his death in 1915, Comstock was responsible for the destruction of 160 tons of literature and pictures (Censorship pp). This law also forbade distribution of birth control information, and in 1915, Margaret Sanger's husband was jailed for distributing her "Family Limitation," which described and advocated various methods of contraception (Books pp). Margaret fled the country to avoid prosecution but returned in 1916 to start the American Birth Control League, which eventually became Planned Parenthood (Books pp).

Until the Tariff Act was amended in 1930, many literary classic were forbidden entry into the United States on grounds of obscenity, and even after the act's amendment censorship attempts persisted, for example it was 1933 before James Joyce's "Ulysses" was allowed into the U.S. And only after a legal court battle (Censorship pp). Other notable works of literature involved obscenity cases included DH Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," and John Cleland's "Fanny Hill" (Censorship pp).

Beginning in 1957 and continuing for a fifteen year period, a series of Supreme Court decisions relaxed restrictions on "so-called" obscene materials, however the states responded by enacting laws prohibiting the sale of obscene materials to minors, which were upheld by the Court in 1968 (Censorship pp). The decisions handed down by the Court in 1973 and 1987 ruled that local governments could restrict works if such works were without "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" and were considered by local standards to appeal to prurient interest (Censorship pp). Beginning in the 1960's, sex education in schools has been a highly controversial issue, and more recently, the question of AIDS education has ignited heated debate (Censorship pp). During the 1980's, feminists attempted to ban pornography, claiming it was injurious to women, and other activists, concerned with racism and other forms of bigotry, have lobbied for the suppression of what has come to be known as "hate speech" (Censorship pp).

During the 1920's, motion picture producers reluctantly adopted a self-regulatory code of morals, known as the Hays Code, that was replaced after 1966 by a voluntary rating system under the supervision of the Motion Picture Producers Association, and this need to tailor a movie to fit a ratings category has acted as a form of censorship (Censorship pp). William Harrison Hays was an American politician and motion picture executive, who as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from 1922-1945, administered the motion-picture moral code (Censorship pp). The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, the Hayes Code, stated its general principles as such:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

(Motion pp).

There was a myriad of regulations and applications, such as, adultery must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively; excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown; seduction or rape should never be more than suggested; sex relationships between the white and black races is forbidden; and scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented (Motion pp). The 1915 film "Birth of a Nation" was banned in several U.S. cities (Banned pp).

Since 1934, local radio, and later television, stations have operated under licenses granted by the Federal Communications Commission, which is expressly forbidden to exercise censorship, however the required periodical review of a station's license invites indirect censorship, and in 1996 the Supreme Court ruled that indecent material could be banned from commercial cable-television stations but not from pubic-access cable stations (Censorship pp).

The rapid growth of the Internet presents another set of issues, and in 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, however the Supreme Court overturned it due to the restrictions it placed on adult access to and use of constitutionally protected material and communication on the Internet (Censorship pp). In 2001, the Children's Internet Protection Act, requiring libraries and schools to install anti-pornography filters on computers with federally finance Internet access, was upheld by the Court because it was only a condition attached to the acceptance of federal funding and not a general prohibition on access (Censorship pp).

The books and publications that have been banned at some point in the United States would take pages to list. Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Boccaccio's "Decameron," Defoe's "Moll Flanders," as we;; as various editions of "The Arabian Nights," were all banned for decades from the U.S. mails under the Comstock Law (Books pp). This law, although not enforced, still remains legally on the books today, and the Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1996 even specifically applied some of the Comstock laws to computer networks (Books pp). Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was banned in Boston in 1881 for the use of explicit language in some of the poems, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiography "Confessions" was banned by U.S. Customs in 1929 as "injurious to public morality" (Books pp). In 1954, a Rhode Island…[continue]

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