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What is a Censor?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A censor is someone who is given the power to control information by removing or suppressing what is considered objectionable. The material that is censored can be morally problematic, politically incorrect, dangerous for national security, or objectionable on other grounds, which may be public and stated or private and unstated.

The word censor originated in ancient Rome, where two magistrates were in charge of registration of citizens and their property — with associated tasks such as taxing, and later had supervision of public morality added to their purview. The office of censor was first created in 443 BC and ended in 22 BC with the assumption of their powers by the emperor.

Rome, however, was not the only civilization with a censorial office. In China in the Qin and Han dynasties from 221 BC to AD 220, a censor was assigned the task of scrutinizing the emperor. Later, the office acted on behalf of the emperor, seeking out official corruption and mismanaged government. Eventually the office became a government bureau with much expanded powers, but still with an eye to the government, rather than the people. With the Qin Dynasty’s overthrow in 1911, the role of censor ended in China.

A similar role was created in some other East Asian countries that drew on the Chinese system as a model. Both the Korean government and the Japanese government had censor systems. Other societies have had censors as well.

In religion, the role of the censor in the Roman Catholic Church is well known. Works that have to do with Scripture or are related in some way to religion, theology, or other closely connected subjects are reviewed by a censor, who is empowered to give a nihil obstat — a judgment that “nothing hinders” the work from publication. The work is then given an imprimatur by a bishop

In the United States, the First Amendment, the principle of academic freedom, and the Freedom of Information Act tend to protect many activities from censorship. Nevertheless certain agencies and individuals are empowered to censor in specific and limited situations.

Here are a few examples. The military can censor the communication of classified military information; the Federal Communications Commission can censor radio and television transmissions that are judged to be obscene; schools can control certain types of content in newspapers published by students with their funding and under their auspices; people who use speech irresponsibly to defame, libel, or slander others can be sued, which, in effect, censors certain types of speech.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for PublicPeople, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

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Discussion Comments

By letshearit — On Sep 11, 2011

Whenever I think of censoring, I think of people writing letters during wartime that get censored. Though of course technology has really changed the way this works, some people (like myself) can actually remember getting letters with little bits cut out. Sometimes it was more like getting a piece of lace than an actual letter!

But you know, even though we hated the censors and were so upset to only get little bits and pieces of a letter, it was certainly better than no letters at all. At least that way we knew that our friends and relatives were still alive!

By manykitties2 — On Sep 10, 2011

It seems to me that censorship is a good idea for a lot of mainstream media, but it sometimes has the opposite effect of what was intended. I remember back when they started labeling CDs with the "explicit lyrics" stickers and they actually made teens want to buy them more. There was a certain coolness factor that got added to things when they became forbidden.

Nowadays with file sharing and the ease of purchasing music online, I really think the censorship of music is even harder. Do you think that music should have to add a censor sound effect right into the files? Or would this ruin the music?

By MrsWinslow — On Sep 10, 2011

The censor bleep you hear on TV is certainly the most notable kind of censorship in American society. I think it comes about because the airwaves were given to TV stations for free and in exchange, they have to be subject to a certain amount of government control. (They are not allowed, for instance, to endorse political candidates.)

TV may be a special case, but in general, I agree with Mark Twain, who said that censorship - essentially, keeping things away form the public because they are not appropriate for children - is like telling a man he can't eat a steak because a baby can't chew it!

Living in a (mostly) free society comes with certain challenges and responsibilities. I would rather have to police what comes into my home and pay attention to what my kids are watching and reading and looking at online than have the government do it for me!

By cafe41 — On Sep 09, 2011

@Bhutan - What bothers me is when people try to censor books or other material because they don’t like it. The material in the book may or may not be questionable, but people have a right to read whatever they want.

I feel that parents should decide what is appropriate for their child to read because everyone has different belief systems. I know that recently, there was an attempted ban on a specific video game because of its violent nature, but the Supreme Court ruled that this ban would have been unconstitutional.

The video game was allowed to be on the market and many people were upset with that. Although I may not have wanted my children playing with that game, I basically decide what is brought into my house so I don’t need a video game ban to keep me from buying the game.

I also talk to my children about current events like this, and I really don’t seem to have children that are taken by any type of video game. I really think that censorship attempts are really getting a little out of hand.

By Bhutan — On Sep 09, 2011

I prefer hearing the censor beep when I am watching a program that may have some foul language. I really prefer this to the dubbed version where a different word is substituted.

I forgot what movie I was watching, but there was a part that was dubbed over with completely different dialogue and the new dialogue changed the joke entirely. It fact it really didn’t make sense. I think that in cases like that a good old censor sound would have been preferable especially when you have already seen the movie and can appreciate the joke the way it was originally written.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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