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.