Free Speech and Censorship

Ratified in 1791, the first amendment of the Constitution of United States of America states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


In spite of the guarantees offered by this first of the Bill of Rights, many argue that no freedoms are absolute; most or all have limits. For example, one’s freedom of speech reaches a limit when that speech infringes upon someone’s security of person. In other words, one’s rights end when they infringe upon the rights of another.

This brings us to censorship, the act of suppressing communicative material (in print, in images, in art) because it is considered too dangerous or too objectionable to be consumed (Merino). While the thought of censorship usually turns our minds to matters of sex, violence, and language on television or in movies, the suppression of content and expression extends well beyond mainstream entertainment. Among the creative content and platforms that may get censored are broadcast television, cable television, streaming and subscription programming, film, print media including books, photography, social media, other forms of art, and even education. Here’s a crash course on censorship:

So, if censorship suppresses material, then the logical next question is that of who does the suppressing. Those playing a role in censorship of creative content include the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), owners of social media platforms, and content creators themselves. Let’s begin with the FCC.

While the Federal Communications Commission does not regulate online content, over-the-air broadcasts by local television and radio stations are subject to “certain speech restraints.” These restrictions are focused on specific topics, which usually “have been identified by Congress through legislation or adopted by the FCC through full notice-and-comment rulemaking or adjudicatory proceedings.” These topics include

Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy enjoys pushing the censorship envelope. In one episode the writing team directly took on the FCC and its censorship of television:

This one is even funnier!

The Motion Picture Association of America does not directly censor or ban movies, but the organization does play a large role in how filmmakers regulate their own content. This is through the MPAA’s rating system. In order to earn a desired rating, PG-13 perhaps instead of R, a filmmaker will take great care in managing the content of a film in order to comply with the rating system. Now, the MPAA’s rating system is not legally mandated. In fact, it is completely voluntary for a filmmaker to submit a movie for rating. Most do in order to reach the widest possible audience as many movie theaters will refuse to carry an unrated film (Dow). Here is a look at what MPAA ratings actually mean:

In recent years, we have seen owners of social media companies ban users from their platforms for matters such as disinformation and hate speech. One of the most prominent examples of this is Twitter’s decision to ban U.S. President Donald Trump from its platform in January of 2021 “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” More recently, in December of 2022, Twitter suspended Kanye West’s account for violating rules against inciting violence. Previous to that ban, West’s account was locked in October of 2022 for an antiemetic tweet (McLean). Okay, so we know that social media can censor, this brings us to the question of whether it should:

We already looked at how filmmakers censor themselves, but it is equally important to recognize that in today’s world nearly everyone is a content creator. One need not be a video producer or crafter of a well-written blog to create digital content. One tweet or Instagram post constitutes creation of content. As a result, many creators are self censoring. An article in Psychology Today called self-censorship a “survival strategy,” adding that a major factor contributing to people censoring themselves is “fear that expressing an unpopular view will result in being isolated or alienated from family or friends” (Legge). Let’s look at the question self-censorship and free speech:

Now that we have explored various types of censorship and the reasons behind it, we are left to unpack its benefits and its costs.

Works Cited

CBS Sunday Morning. Columbia Broadcasting System. 20 February 2022.

Dow, Douglas. “Motion Picture Ratings.” The First Amendment Encyclopedia. 2009.

The FCC and Speech.” Federal Communications Commission. N.D.

Legge, Matthew. “The Rise of Self-Censorship.” Psychology Today. 5 July 2021.

McLean, Rob. “Kanye West’s Twitter Account Has Been Suspended After Elon Musk Says it Violated Rule Against Incitement to Violence.” Cable News Network. 2 December 2022. 

Merino, Noel, editor. Censorship. Greenhaven Press, 2010.

Permanent Suspension of @realDonaldTrump.” Twitter, Inc. 8 January 2021.

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