Censorship on the Internet and in Education

By: Chad Hawthorne

CS3604, Spring 1997


The definition of censorship from the American Library Association is, "The change in the access status of material, made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include: exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes." [3]


A debate on censorship could cover volumes of law books. There are hundreds of modern day cases on the subject, many of which have reached the Supreme Court. This page is not an attempt to delve into every aspect of censorship, a task that the author finds daunting. This resource explores American's beliefs on censorship, some examples of censorship in academia, and how the issue of censorship relates to digital media, including the Internet.

Censorship takes many forms in our country. From the outright banning of books and information, to the more subtle censorship of persuasion. Despite the importance our country places on freedom of thought and the freedom of speech, there have been countless efforts throughout our history to curb those freedoms. Frequently these efforts are successful, either in the outright banning of information or a curb in the freedoms once allowed. According to UPI the censorship of textbooks, novels, and classroom materials was at its highest level in 10 years in 1992.[2] An organization dedicated to protecting constitutional liberties, People for the American Way, reports that "'censors' were more active in 1991-92 than in any other year, with 376 'attacks on the freedom to learn in 44 states." [2] Not only are these 'censors' more active but their efforts are more successful than at any point in the four years previous to 1992. According to the People for the American Way, "Forty-one percent of the materials challenged were removed or restricted in some fashion."[2] Censorship is not limited to books and physical media, it also has effects on the Internet and the digital world. Censoring material on the Internet has become an important issue for countries around the world. Censorship is an ongoing issue and the battle to stop censorship is one that has roots in the very beginnings of our country.


To understand Americans beliefs on censorship it is valuable to learn exactly where these values originate and to learn how they are being challenged. Our beliefs in freedom of speech and our values that limit censorship are exemplified in our constitution and the associated bill of rights. The framers of the constitution drew their values and concepts of civil liberties from many sources, including the ancient Greeks and contemporary English philosophers. From the ancient Greeks came forth the idea of 'natural law' and the concept of equality. [5]

Another more contemporary influence was the writings of the 17th century English political philosopher, John Locke. One of Locke's major contributions was the idea, "[T]he end of law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom."[5] This idea translated into our bill of rights, ratified December 15, 1791. The first item in the bill of rights 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. "[5] This first amendment to the constitution serves as the basis for our freedoms of speech and the cornerstone of censorship debates in the United States. Many efforts to censor ideas, books, and electronic media have been challenged based on this amendment to the constitution.

Modern Court Cases about Academia

One of these challenges to the law came in a 1982 Supreme Court case, Island Tree School District v. Pico. This case answered the question of who has the right to remove books from a school library and on what basis. The Island Tree Village school board removed from the school library ten books that it considered, "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy."[4] Some of the books banned included classics such as, Kurt Vonegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Richard Wright's Black Boy, and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. The Supreme Court admitted that the school board has discretion to create and maintain a school curricclum and to further appropriate civic and moral values. However, the Supreme Court announced important limits on this discretion; it said that the First Amendment extends to "the right to receive ideas" in the context of a school library, where "a student can literally explore the unknown."[4] The court stated that school officials may not engage in the "narrowly partisan suppression of ideas" by removing books from the library simply because they contain ideas that they disagree with.[4] This case was the basis from which all other school censorship cases would be evaluated. Six years after this historic case there came another case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.[4] This case brought up the question of weather the school administration has the right to censor and limit the content of a school newspaper. It was decided that the school administration does have the right to review and edit the content of a school newspaper. The court qualified their decision by stating that administrators decisions must be based on, "legitimate pedagogical concerns."[4]

The fine line between "legitimate pedagogical concerns" and "narrowly partisan suppression" is constantly being redefined and challenged by new censorship cases. These cases involve old forms of media and information, as well as new digital media. Censorship is not promoted by just one political group or social advocacy organization, however, according to the ACLU, "the greatest threat today comes from the fundamentalist right, with its ideological hostility to other religious or philosophical systems, to homosexuality, to sex education, and indeed the basic idea of secular education."[4] The censorship debate in academia is frequently a debate about children. It concerns what is appropriate for children to read, learn, and see. It involves censoring teachers and school administrators all in the name of the children. This debate about what children should learn is the basis for censoring the Internet here in the United States. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 censored most forms of digital media on the basis that children were getting obscene material over the Internet.[1]

Censorship and Digital Media

In the United States censorship of the Internet reared its head in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act. In the Telecommunications Act there is embedded in Title V a measure called the "Communications Decency Act" or CDA. The CDA limits "obscene, indecent and offensive material" on the Internet.[1] This act makes it illegal to distribute pornography or other indecent material to minors over the Internet or any other digital media. It is a bold step in censoring the cyber-world, and limiting free speech. There was a tremendous debate about weather this law was needed and what effect it would have on the Internet community. Previously there were few laws governing the Internet and it was generally considered as bastion of global freedoms. However, this new law signified an effort by the government to censor peoples thoughts and ideas, under the guise of protecting children.

Other countries are also trying to grapple with the problem of indecent material on the Internet.[6] All of these actions have the effect of limiting personal freedoms and censoring the general public. Although other governments have different values and ideas about freedom of speech, their values and decisions affect everybody in this increasingly global environment, including us in the United States. The Internet has given citizens of every country the ability to communicate and transfer information across borders. This presents a problem in the area of censorship. If one country passes a law governing the use of the Internet, how is it to be enforced in this global environment? For example , "A German court has already acted to prevent users in that country from accessing sexually explicit Internet discussion groups. The court forced CompuServe, a US-based online information service, to block access to about 200 of the thousands of "Usenet" groups to be found on the Internet."[6] Clearly the laws and regulations made by one country have an effect on the Internet community at large, regardless of where a user lives. The ethics and censorship beliefs that Americans hold so valuable can conceivably be challenged and thwarted by the laws of another country.

In conclusion, the censorship one country takes to limit personal freedoms can have a ripple effect through governments around the world. This censorship often stems from the need to protect children from obscenity and "adult" topics. The need to protect children is most obvious in the nations schools, where censorship is frequently carried out, and even upheld by the courts. Now, with the development of digital media, children are learning about the world from the privacy of their homes. Must this digital media be censored and freedoms curtailed to protect children? Hopefully a solution will be found that protects children and freedoms.