Sense or Ship? A Closer Look

We’ve talked about this before to some extent. But in recent months, its become increasingly evident that these information control challenges are not dissipating. It’s hitting librarians on all fronts, both in board meetings and from the raging public who want their personal views fully embraced by a public library whose sole purpose is to serve the entire community. 

Such matters were previously addressed in the ALA Library Bill of Rights. 


This situation is continuous for libraries but has increased in severity in recent years. Usually addressed by directors and collection development librarians, they find themselves on the front lines of information wars. But let’s take a closer look at censorship. Where did this all start, and what are the pros and cons?

Defined by Merriam-Webster as: “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.” This word has long been present in our language as well as in our ancient ancestors. According to the Frontier Center for Public Policy, “The origin of the term “censor” is traced to the office of censor created in ancient Rome, around 443 BC. Just as in ancient Grecian communities, the Roman ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Censorship was thus regarded as an honorable task. In China, the first censorship law was made over 1,700 years ago, and it is still a basic feature of Chinese society today.” For thousands of years, governments have been censoring the non-conformist voices of their citizenry. A basic timeline (seen below) from shows us the more famous incidents of censorship: 

From Socrates being sentenced to drink hemlock for his unpopular influence on the local youth to the well-known Nazi extremism of the World War II era, and many more, censorship has been a large part of social controls for ages. Regardless of which topic you prefer to censor, censorship has pros and cons as a general practice. To be clear, I am not taking a side on any topic (just putting that out there…). 

According to the site, there are nine pros of censorship (my comments added below each):

  1. Censorship can reduce the impact of hate speech in society
    1. It sounds great in theory, but it can quickly get out of control in practice.
  2. Protect children from unhealthy content
    1. Obviously good to a certain extent, but again, it quickly becomes unmanageable
  3. Reduces the amount of conflict that is in society
    1. Does it, though? If this worked, our human history would be much less bloody.
  4. Censorship can provide another level of security to a country’s profile
    1. Depends on your perspective, really.
  5. Protects the rights of artists, innovators, and inventors
    1. True, and it’s often up to the artist, innovator, or inventor if they want to share their work. 
  6. It provides us with a vehicle to stop false content
    1. This only works in societies like in George Orwell’s 1984. We all know how that story went.
  7. Works to improve a person’s knowledge
    1. No comment here.
  8. Limits the impact of identity theft
    1. Yes and no. 
  9. Censorship helped to create our rating system
    1. Think of the music and film industries. I like to know the ratings for a show before I let my kid watch it, just like my parents did. 


They also listed the cons of censorship: 


  1. Represses one group of people in favor of what the majority wants
    1. This can be either good or bad, depending on which group you consider yourself to be in.
  2. Allows people to create a specific narrative in society to call truth
    1. This made me think again of George Orwell’s 1984.
  3. Stops people from pursuing career opportunities
    1. We already have laws in place to guarantee equal opportunity employment, but if those laws didn’t exist, the employment system of the United States would be very different.
  4. Reduces the overall intelligence of the general public
    1. No allowance to speak or learn freely certainly would limit knowledge intake.
  5. Prevents an individual from expressing themselves freely
    1. As long as they aren’t physically harming anyone, in my opinion.
  6. Shifts where the responsibility of consumption is in society
    1. I was taught from a young age the old adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It’s true for the most part, but self-control keeps the garbage from going back out. 
  7. Creates an adverse impact on the economy at all levels
    1. Can’t do this, can’t say that? Yeah, that’d cause a ripple effect across the socioeconomic systems. 
  8. Allows a false narrative to become the truth
    1. Again, look at “1984”. Ministry of Truth being what it was in that context. 
  9. It is expensive to be engaged in the practice of censorship
    1. It would cost a lot of money to enforce broad censorship. This is why governments try to do it bit by bit. 


With all of that being said, it’s still difficult to know when something should or shouldn’t be permitted. Some things are easily decided on, while others, like books, are less so. Regardless of how we feel about one thing or another, it’s good to remember that violence should never be the response.