Global Ethics Corner: Is Censorship Ever Justified?

August 10, 2012

Censorship takes many forms. In Ethiopia, bloggers critical of the government were recently jailed on vague terrorism charges. In China, Internet censors blocked the term "New York University" because it can lead to information about political dissident Chen Guancheng. And in Russia, the parliament just passed a bill that would force Internet service providers to block a list of websites.

Countries with more democratic traditions have their own brand of censorship. A British soccer player recently faced a criminal charge and potential fine when he was accused of racially abusing an opposing team's player. He was eventually acquitted, but the potential punishment was a criminal record and a nearly $4,000 fine.

A French ban on face coverings, usually associated with traditional Islamic veils for women, is another form of censorship. In an effort to enforce religious neutrality in the country, women wearing veils called niqabs in public are subject to a fine.

These types of laws are unheard of in the United States, where speech, religion, and the press are protected by the First Amendment. Organizations with clearly hateful agendas, like the Ku Klux Klan, are given permits for public assembly. Americans can even display racially insensitive signs targeting President Obama in the nation's capital and face no criminal repercussions.

In America's private sector, though, the story is different. The Motion Picture Association of America rates movies based on their content. An offensive tweet or remark in the office could cost you your job or land you in civil court.

Is governmental censorship ever warranted? Should governments criminalize speech or clothing to promote religious or racial tolerance? Is it OK in the workplace? And when does censorship cross the line into repression?

By Alex Woodson

For more information see:

Kevin Rooney, "Free speech is the real loser in Terry v Ferdinand," The Independent, July 18, 2012

Danny O'Brien, "Internet law: a good bad example of Russia's backsliding," Committee to Protect Journalists, July 13, 2012

"'New York University' Is Added to China's List of Banned Internet Search Terms," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2012

"Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega jailed for 18 years," BBC News, July 13, 2012


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