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The suppression or proscription of speech or writing that is deemed obscene, indecent, or unduly controversial.
The term censorship derives from the official duties of the Roman censor who, beginning in 443 B.C., conducted the census by counting, assessing, and evaluating the populace. Originally neutral in tone, the term has come to mean the suppression of ideas or images by the government or others with authority.
Throughout history, societies practiced various forms of censorship in the belief that the community, as represented by the government, was responsible for molding the individual. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato advocated various degrees of censorship in The Republic; the content of important texts and the dissemination of knowledge were tightly controlled in ancient Chinese society as is much information in modern China; and for centuries the Roman Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum proscribed much literature as contrary to the church's teachings.
The English-speaking world began wrestling with issues of censorship in the seventeenth century. In his Areopagitica (1644), John Milton argued in favor of the right to publish, free from government restraint. In the United States, the FIRST AMENDMENT to the Constitution (1787) guarantees FREEDOM OF SPEECH and FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. When a U.S. government agency attempts to prohibit speech or writing, the party being censored frequently raises these First Amendment rights. Such cases usually involve communication that the government perceives as harmful to itself or the public.
In some cases, the government can constitutionally censor the speech of those who receive federal funding. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 111 S. Ct. 1759, 114 L. Ed. 2d 233 (1991), that, without restricting First Amendment rights, the government can ban ABORTION counseling in federally funded health clinics.
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