Most of the censorship policies in the Western world seem rather lenient when compared to the policies of other countries like China, Burma, or North Korea. It’s no question that the privileges and freedom Americans experience daily pale in comparison with the freedom experienced by citizens of less developed countries. One may even go so far as to question whether or not censorship policies really exist at all in the West. After all, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects every citizen’s right to free speech; so Americans can say whatever they want and not suffer any legal ramifications from doing so…right? Not exactly, as it turns out, the First Amendment does not protect any expression that’s considered obscene.
So what makes something obscene? Well it’s rather hard to say since a definitive definition of the term, obscenity, has never been collectively agreed upon. An obscenity is most often thought of as an expression that’s found to be extremely offensive. Now it’s important to note, that the notion of an indecency is essentially synonymous with the notion of an obscenity: the only apparent difference between the two terms is that the First Amendment protects against indecency, but not obscenity. Oddly enough, the Supreme Court hasn’t even been able to precisely explain why the First Amendment does not protect obscenities and federal obscenity laws have been in place for over a century! Additionally, when questioned about the constituents of obscenity, Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward, memorably replied: “I know it when I see it”. Fortunately though the Supreme Court has adopted a threefold-standardized test to help determine whether something can be officially classified as obscene or not, this process is described as follows:
[C]urrently, obscenity is evaluated by federal and state courts alike using a tripartite standard established by Miller v. California 413 U.S. 15 (1973). The Miller test for obscenity includes the following criteria: (1) whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ appeals to ‘prurient interest’ (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (“Obscenity”)
Federal obscenity laws restrict an individuals’ freedom of expression to some extent. For instance, spouting off verbal threats and racial prejudices would be an offence punishable by incarceration since said speech violates federal obscenity laws. “Fighting words” are also not protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Furthermore, the rationale behind the implementation of federal obscenity laws usually pertains to protecting children from being exposed to pornography, profanity, and prejudices.
In short, censorship policies in contemporary America are camouflaged and indistinct. The reason why these regulations are so vague is because the abstractness of these policies gives the censors more power and authority. Censorship policies in the United States are framed around the federal obscenity laws. It’s worth noting that most occurrences of censorship happen in response to public outcry. In other words, materials only get censored if they offend and motivate an individual enough to advocate or lobby in favor of suppressing the alleged material. For example, literary works are most often challenged in a local library by angry parents. The scope of the controversy that unfolds during these literary challenges is relatively small, typically being limited to one particular book, in one particular library, in one particular community. Over the years, however, many books, films, and broadcasts depicting obscene or indecent material have slide under the censors radar completely unscathed simply because no official complaints were made in response to said material. This means that offended citizens motivate the censors’ to censor. The fundamental aims of censorship regulations in the United States are to protect the youth from negative influences, to promote gender and racial equality, to preserve community values, and to refrain from offending an audience.
Boyer, Paul S. “1980 to the Present.” Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age. 2nd ed. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 2002. 317-60. “Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A.” American Library Association. ALA, 04 Mar. 2009. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorshipfirstamendmentissues/ifcensorshipq anda>. “Obscene, Indecent, and Profane Broadcasts.” Fcc.gov. Federal Communications Committee, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <https%3A%2F%2Fconsumercomplaints.fcc.gov%2Fhc%2Fen- us%2Farticles%2F202731600-Obscene-Indecent-and-Profane-Broadcasts>. “Obscenity.” Wex Legal Dictionary. Legal Information Institute, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obscenity>.