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Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a censor.

The entertainment industry is an area where censorship is present in the most visible form.  Theater and film affect the common interest of the public and are hence subject to certain types of governmental regulation.  But attempts to regulate or censor films often interfere with the free speech rights of playwrights, screenwriters, filmmakers, performers, and distributors.

In Ginsberg v. New York, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is lawful to censor obscene entertainment to safeguard children from pornography and to protect adults from unknowingly or involuntarily viewing indecent materials.  Although it was laid down in Stanley v. Georgia by the Supreme Court that individuals are permitted to view obscenity in the privacy of their homes, in Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton it was held that theaters and movie houses are public places and are therefore subject to regulation.  However the difficulty with such censorship is in determining the boundary line between “obscene” and “non-obscene.”

An attempt at defining what constitutes an obscene matter was undertaken by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California. The Supreme Court in the case concluded that a work is obscene and can be regulated if it appeals to a viewer’s prurient interest; portrays sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.  The Court further ruled that interpretations of this definition may vary across the United States and that communities may apply their own local standards to determine obscenity.

To avoid government censorship, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) regulates itself through a voluntary rating system.  The system does not have statutory authority but is used to help the industry conform to statutes designed to protect children.  Later, on the lines of the Supreme Court decision in Ginsberg v. New York, the MPAA devised a rating system based on the viewer’s age.  As per this rating system, A G rating signals that subject matter is suitable for general audiences; PG stands for Parental Guidance Suggested; PG-13 strongly advises guidance for children under age 13 because of possibly inappropriate material; R requires accompaniment by an adult for children under age 17, or 18 in some states; and NC-17 or X prohibit anyone under age 17, or 18 in some states, from entering the theater.

Apart from films, radio and television have also met with governmental pressure to control the content of their broadcasts.  Spurred by the belief that violence on television adversely affects children’s behavior and attitudes, the Congress has attempted several times to encourage the media to adopt voluntary guidelines in the hope that less violence on television will lead to a less violent society.  However, the government intrusion into broadcasting arena to discourage certain types of speech has not been generally welcomed.  The various pieces of legislation raise questions about media self-censorship and the role of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in regulating freedom of expression.

In response to congressional pressure the National Association of Broadcasters adopted the Family Viewing Policy in 1974 to limit the first hour of prime-time programming to material suitable for families.  The policy was found unconstitutional in Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. v. F.C.C.

The Children’s Television Act of 1990 regulates the content of children’s television by limiting the amount of advertising on children’s television and compels broadcasters to air educational programs.  Failure to comply with the act can result in non- renewal of a station’s license.

The Television Violence Act introduced in December 1990 was another legislation introduced to regulate contents aired on the television.  This act, which expired in 1993, was intended to prompt the networks, cable industry, and independent stations to decrease the amount of violence shown on television.  Although the Act did not constitute direct government regulation, the Act was criticized as a governmental attempt to impose its values on society by discouraging, if not suppressing, unpopular ideas.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, required television manufacturers to create a chip, known as the V-chip, which allows users, presumably parents, to block out programs based on their sexual or violent content.  The chip, which has been installed in television sets manufactured since 1999, operates in conjunction with a voluntary rating system implemented by TV broadcasters that rates programs for violence and sexual content.

Radio broadcasts have also come under censorship scrutiny.  In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court ruled that a daytime broadcast of a program called “Seven Dirty Words” violated the prohibition of and was therefore subject to regulation.

Censorship is therefore a very important part of the entertainment industry.  Censorship exists in all spheres of the industry including radio, television and movies.

Inside Censorship