posted Jun 28, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Censorship. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

For structural symmetry with the Free Speech section, let's go ahead and start with the dictionary definition. A drumroll please...:

Censorship is the act of censoring.

OK, that was particularly useless. Curse structural parallelism!

The best way to understand my definition of censoring is to consider the stereotypical example of military censorship. During World War II, when Allied soldiers wrote home from the front, all correspondence going home was run through [human] censors to remove any references that might allow someone to place where that soldier was, what that soldier was armed with, etc. The theory was that if that information was removed, it couldn't end up in the hands of the enemy, which could be detrimental to the war effort. The soldier (sender) sent the message home (receiver) via the postal service as a letter (medium). The government censors intercepted that message and modified it before sending it on. If the censor so chose, they could even completely intercept the letter and prevent anything from reaching home.

This leads me naturally to my basic definition of censorship:

Censorship is the act of changing a message, including the change of deletion (complete elimination of the message), between the sender and the receiver.

Censorship is not always evil; few would argue that when practiced responsibly, military censorship as described above is truly ethically wrong. Censorship is a tool like anything else, it can be used to accomplish good or evil. But like war, censorship must be used sparingly, and only when truly necessary.

There is one last thing that we must take into account, and that is the middleman. Newspapers often receive a press release, but they may process, digest, and editorialize on the basis of that press release, not simply run the press release directly. The Internet is granting astonishing new capabilities to the middlemen, in addition to making the older ways of pre-processing information even easier, and we should not label those all as censorship.

Fortunately, there is a simple criterion we can apply. Do both the sender and the receiver agree to use this information middleman? If so, then no censorship is occurring. This seems intuitive; newspapers aren't really censoring, they're just being newspapers.

You could look at this as not being censorship only as long as the middlemen are being truthful about what sort of information manipulation they are performing. You could equally well say that it is impossible to characterize how a message is being manipulated because a message is such a complicated thing once you take context into account. Basically, since this is simply a side-issue that won't gain us anything, so we leave it to the sender, receiver, and middleman to defend their best interests. It takes the agreement of all three to function, which can be removed at any time, so there is always an out.

For example, many news sites syndicate headlines and allow anybody to display them, including mine. If a news site runs two articles, one for some position and one against, and some syndication user only runs one of the stories, you might claim that distorts the meaning of the original articles taken together. Perhaps this is true, but if the original news site was worried about this occurring, perhaps those stories should not have been syndicated, or perhaps they should have been bound more tightly together, or perhaps this isn't really a distortion. Syndication implies that messages will exist in widely varying contexts.

Like anything else, there is some flex room here. The really important point is to agree that the criterion is basically correct. We can argue about the exact limits later.

So, my final definition:

Censorship is the act of changing a message, including the act of deletion, between the sender and the receiver, without the sender's and receiver's consent and knowledge.

In terms of the communication model, censorship occurs when somebody interrupts or interferes with the medium such that a message is tampered with while traveling from the sender to the receiver.


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