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Censorship Impacts on Civil Liberties Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 3rd, 2020


Censorship refers to the act of controlling the flow of information, opinions, and ideas in the society. This is mainly achieved through the suppression of speech, books, films, music, and other forms of public communication, which are considered harmful, objectionable, and problematic. Censorship is construed in this paper as infringement into civil liberties. The concept of civil liberties can be defined as certain privileges that are given to the citizens in order to exercise of their freedoms and rights.

Various states have a varying composition of what entails the civil liberties (Curtis 51). In the United States, human rights are commonly referred to as civil liberties, in reference to known political rights and freedoms that those eligible to participate in political process enjoy. In the US, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of expression; it is one of the main democratic rights and freedoms.

However, freedom of expression is not absolute in most countries because it is normally subjected to limitations, which prohibit individuals from expressing sedition, obscenity, slander, and libel. For example, conveying information that incites ethnic hatred is prohibited in most countries despite the existence of freedom of expression (Zeno-Zencovich 302).

The UN declaration of human rights under article 19 recognizes freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. In some instances, freedom of expression has been legally limited whenever it is found to bring religious offenses. For example, in Britain, the Racial, and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 limits expressions that is defamatory on racial and religious lines (Zeno-Zencovich 302). This paper will thus, compare censorship in the modern society and several years ago. This will entail exploring the civil liberties in various countries.

Censorship in the Historic Times and Censorship in the Modern Society

Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy that allows it to work, and enable members of the public to participate in decision-making. Without freedom of expression, citizens can never exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes, as well as vote if they cannot access information and ideas, as they are not given the freedom to express their views (Zeno-Zencovich 160).

If freedom of expression is violated, mostly likely other freedoms like freedom of assembly and association will also be violated. In the US, the First Amendment that protects the freedom of expression is not only limited to speech, rallies, newspaper, and books, but it also protects symbolic speech like non-verbal expressions that have intent of communicating ideas (Zeno-Zencovic 303).

Civil liberties faced varied pressure during the Civil War, the Quasi-War, World War I, World War II, and the current War on Terror.

For example, during the Quasi–war with France, the repression of civil liberties targeted mainly foreigners and natives who engaged in acts that were perceived to demonstrate criticism of the president and his government. The Alien and Sedition Act was passed in order to effect this; the powers of the president incarcerate, criminalize speech, and deport aliens was dramatically increased, which curtailed the freedom of expression and equality (Curtis 56).

During civil war, the civil liberties were suppressed in the name of protecting the states security, any act that is seen as to jeopardize or act against the national security is dealt with full force. During the American civil war, Limbdin Milligan and the other four were prosecuted in a military tribunal for attempting to steal and use union weapons for that sake of launching an armed campaign against the union (Stone 56).

However, they were hanged in 1865, a decision that was backed by the Supreme Court, which argued that suspending the habeas corpus was lawful in order to prosecute the two at the military tribunal. This is an illustration that the state can infringe on the civil liberties in order to further her own course of action (Curtis 168).

The First World War saw the employment of the Sedition and Espionage Acts to suppress critics of the government. Critics of Woodrow Wilson’s regime were persecuted using these two acts, and civil liberties heavily violated in the name of protecting the government (Schlesinger 130). They were denied civil liberties by the inhuman action of the government under the cover of enhancing countrywide security and peace.

In addition, the Patriot Act has given the government express access to people’s private life in the name of fighting terrorism. This is quite different what was experienced during the First World War and Civil War in the United States. The Patriot Act is simply a legislation that has bred a new form of repressing civil liberties in a more developed digital and more democratic era (Stone 58). The government uses it to curtail freedom of privacy, expression, and association.

The war on terror ushered in a new dawn of the USA government’s infringement on the civil liberties (Curtis 169). Freedom of expression and equality before law has been infringed on in order to allow the government security agencies to quell the terror threats that may arise from within the United States.

Review of Literature

According to Richard and Moon (197), there are several arguments that defend the protection of freedom of expression. However, all these arguments are based on three values, which include individual autonomy, democracy, and truth. Freedom of expression should be safeguarded because it enables the public to recognize the truth, as well as increase their knowledgebase.

In addition, freedom of expression is what enable democratic governments to operate, and encourages individual autonomy. Freedom of expression is a concept that can be traced to historic documents that dealt with human rights. For example, the 1689 English Bill of Rights protected free speech in parliament, while the 1789 Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen stated that freedom of expression was an immutable privilege.

Governments have the ability to restrict the freedom of expression by implementing place, manner, and time limitations. However, a permit is not supposed to be denied or withheld based on the content of the speech to be delivered during rallies or demonstrations because it amounts to view point discrimination; this is unconstitutional (Kretzmer 80).

In the event people participating in a rally or demonstrating move from expressing their views through speech and symbol to action, then the government is can engage in aggressive interventions. For example, people engaged in a political protest have the right to chant, debate, picket, and distribute literature, but they do not have the right to block roads or entrance to certain buildings (Kretzmer 82).

China is known to be a country that mostly restricts freedom of expression all over the world. Before the emergence of the internet, the Chinese government succeeded in prohibiting freedom of expression in all spheres of life (Magee 28). The repression of freedom of expression in China has been attributed to the communist ideology. In communist societies, societal interest takes precedence over individual rights, and curtailing individual freedom of expression is seen as beneficial to the society (Magee 35).

Most countries in Africa have constitutions that legally protect the freedom of expression. However, curtailment of freedom expression still exists in some African countries like Eritrea. In this country, cases of imprisonment of journalists are rampant. In some African countries, governments of the day censor broadcast of information to the public (Magee 32).

South Africa is considered an African country that has allowed freedom of expression, but owing to the history of apartheid, its constitution prohibits the expression of hate speech contents (Magee 32).

According to Feldman (206), in the American history, members of the Congress, presidents, and judges of the Supreme Court have often supported suppression of the freedom of expression, especially for literatures and speeches that are considered political. The US Supreme Court recognizes the fact that the government has the right to maintain high levels of secrecy, especially on information related to national security, such as deployment of the army during war.

However, the US Supreme Court has never prohibited free speech on the grounds of national security. The amount of speech that can be prohibited due to national security is quite limited; however, the government has often used the excuse of national security to protect itself from public criticisms and prevent public debates on certain decisions and policies.

The conflict between free speech and national security in the US was witnessed in 1971 when the New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers,” which were leaked security documents. The data stipulated how the US government was involved in Vietnam.

The New York Times disregarded the demand from the government not to publish the documents, and the issue was referred to the Supreme Court (Kretzmer 83). The government did not prove that if the information were published, it would harm the nation. At the time, the public was allowed to have access to information on an issue that was extremely important to the nation (Kretzmer 83).

Scholars have also stated that the concept of freedom of expression is intricately linked to democracy, and if freedom of expression is limited, public debates cannot proceed even in times of emergency (Kretzmer 84).

Alexander Meiklejohn in his fight for democracy and freedom of speech argued that in order for a democratic government to work, there must be a constant flow of ideas and information within the political system. Democracy will not stand for its ideals if the individuals are manipulating the citizens by preventing the flow of information and avoiding criticisms (Kretzmer 84).

Defending freedom of expression on democratic principle has been upheld as the most likeable theory of free speech in Western democracies. A study conducted by the World Bank indicated that freedom of expression and the accountability associated with censorship significantly impacted the quality of a government in a country.

The history of America is characterized by various advancements in freedom of expression, with the most outstanding one being the inclusion of the First Amendment in the constitution (Magee 35). However, it has been observed that records of secrecy and censorship also exist. The research revealed that the government is the most notable censor of freedom of expression. In so doing, the Congress has been able to censor the internet and media on information broadcast (Magee 35).

The US government has been interfering with the freedom of expression of its citizens and immigrants during social upheavals or wars. During such times, governments have been able to censor people with unpopular political views, and send them to jail in some instances. For example, during the World War I, a person could be sent to prison for issuing leaflets that were against the war (Alexander 96). However, the US remains the country that mostly safeguards the freedom of expression in the entire globe.

Attaining freedom of expression in the US was not an easy task as it took approximately 200 years for full adoption. The implementation barred the government from punishing people for seditious speech. The struggle for freedom of expression in the US is seen in Eugene versus Debs’ case, who was given a ten year jail term for addressing a rally of peaceful workers; he told them that their skills were above what they were doing (Alexander 96).

In Canada, the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) was passed in 2001; it gave more authority to intelligence organization and the CSE (Communication Security Establishment). This act enabled the CSE to intercept domestic and foreign communications made to Canada. On its part, the UK passed the Regulatory of Investigatory Power (RIPA) in 2000 (Stoddart 5).

This act gave authority to the Home Secretary to give warrants for communication interception and stipulated communication service providers to implement a reasonable interception capability that will enable surveillance during national security investigation (Stoddart, 2009).

In a France, the LSQ (Loi pour la sécurité quotidienne) bill was introduced in 2001, and subsequently passed in 2003. This act contained anti-terrorism policy that required retention of data. This bill stipulates that the ISPs should retain log files on internet users up to a maximum period of one year (Stoddart 6). Clearly, this reveals information censorship in the European nation.

The US Patriot Act

The US Patriot Act was enacted to provide the right tools that can enable the government to intercept and stop terrorism. The act was developed after the September 11th attacks. The act was also enacted to punish terrorists both in the United States and globally. It was developed to enhance investigatory tools. The act is a modern day censorship tool.

Information Sharing

Section 203 (b) and (d) of the Patriot Act allows information on criminal probes to be shared among different intelligence agencies. The same information can also be shared with different parts of the government including the Judiciary and the office of the president. This is a move that can enable different agencies in the United States to work together efficiently in order to eliminate any threat or apprehend a criminal before he/she achieves the intended mission.

For example, this section has allowed information to be shared between the FBI, CIA, and different police department. As such, security agencies are able to use information available to them to catch up with criminals. Criminal activities have become very sophisticated.

For instance, criminals are coming up with new ways through which they can carry out their activities. With this case, security agencies need to work together to deal with criminals effectively. This can only be achieved through sharing information concerning suspects and criminals (Colliver 70).

Roving Wiretaps

The Patriot Act also allows security agencies to place wiretaps on a number of electronic devices owned by those suspected of criminal activities. This is a provision under Section 206 of the Act. This section allows one wiretap like the Blackberry mobile phones, personal computers, and cell phones among others to be operational.

The recent years have seen massive technological advancements. Terrorists are becoming smarter on a daily basis. They are using the advancements to their advantage to ensure they are not caught. For instance, they are developing new and more sophisticated technologies to cover their tracks or cover carry out their criminal activities undetected. There is no way security agencies can be able to deal with such today’s criminals without employing even drastic measure from the technological field (Phelan 46).

Access to Records

The Patriot Act enable security agencies track down the activities of terrorists in other countries since they can view numerous data on international intelligence. With this situation, they can stop terrorist threats posed through information censorship. Security agencies will be able to counter any foreign attack before it actually occurs.

Moreover, most of the attacks in the United States have been foreign attacks. This implies that the government has to take extreme measures to prevent any internal attacks in the future. One way through which this can be achieved is accessing records (Stefoff 67). This security concern brings forth the need for information censorship.

Sneak & Peak Search Warrants

The Act has allowed security authorities to search businesses or homes of a suspected criminal without any prior notification; this is provided under Section 213 of the Patriot Act. This Act allows investigators to get criminals off guard. This strategy has actually enabled security agencies to stop terrorist attacks or drug dealers before they can do anything harmful to the society.

As such, the United States has been a better place in terms of overall security. In the past, security agencies had to get search warrants from courts and present them to the suspects before they could do any search. This gave the terrorists a head start to tamper with the evidence or flee the country. As such, it becomes very difficult to stop some attacks (Stefoff 67).

Material Support

Initially, the United States had banned offering material support to terrorists. This implies that any individual who is found offering such support stands prosecution at the court of law. Section 805 of the Patriot law has expanded the law to include expert assistance or advice. According to this section, no individual should offer any expertise assistance to criminals and in this regard, anyone found offering the same can be judged in accordance to the law (Stefoff 67).

This section has enabled security agencies to cut criminal networks, hence making it hard to achieve their ill motives. As mentioned earlier, terrorists have become more sophisticated in the strategies they employ to be able to execute their plans unnoticed.

This requires that they have access to a large network that can provide them with the required expertise in different fields especially information technology and engineering. Cutting their access to such a network cripples them, as they will not be able to accomplish their missions. The United States needs to achieve this to deal with terrorists effectively (Herman 203).

Discussion and Assessment

Freedom of expression has been declared a basic human right by the UN, and denying citizens their right to freedom of expression amounts to violation of human rights. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of expression, and it is not only limited to speech and text, but also other forms of expression like artistic expression.

In most countries, the constitution guarantees the freedom of expression through the bill of rights. Freedom of expression is a crucial right because its violation also leads to the violation of other rights. Besides, countries that curtail freedom of expression like China also have a record of violating other human rights.

One of the disadvantages of freedom of expression is that it allows people to utter or write anything about others, which sometimes can be lies, derogatory and hurtful comments. In some cases inflammatory content can be printed or written in the internet courtesy of free speech. Another disadvantage of freedom of speech is that it can undermine security in a country (Alexander 98).

For example, the WikiLeaks website, which publishes information that is politically sensitive because of freedom of expression, can put many people in danger. Political rallies and demonstrations that are organized on the ground of free speech sometimes turn violent because hijack possibilities by extremist individuals (Alexander 102).

Freedom of expression has also been seen as disadvantageous because it may promote defamatory acts in society such as racism. However, some scholars have argued that what amounts to racism or discrimination is purely subjective. Freedom of expression has also led to the appearance of racist websites that encourage hatred and deeply divide the society along racial, religious, or ethnic lines (Alexander 102).

For example, websites such “Her Race” represents the views of extremist women who spread intolerance and white supremacy. Anti-Semites have also turned to the internet to spread their hatred messages. Additionally, anti-gay groups have also followed suits, while anti-government groups have promoted violence online by providing other extremists with information on how to design bombs and grenades (Alexander 120).

Defending freedom of expression on democratic principle has been upheld as the most likeable theory of free speech in Western democracies. A World Bank study indicated that freedom of expression and the accountability associated with it significantly relies on the quality of a government in a country. The history of America is characterized by various advancements in freedom of expression, with the most outstanding one being the inclusion of the First Amendment in the constitution.


Civil liberties are an important element of democracy, and should be upheld by all governments. Governments that still practice censorship like China should be pressurized to grant this basic human right to their citizens. The US has the largest space when it comes to freedom of expression, but recently there has been criticism that the government is enacting laws that limits the freedom of expression in the name of upholding national security.

Oppression and violation of human rights are rampant in countries that curtail freedom of expression. This is because citizens can never freely express their violations to the international human rights organization and the international community. Freedom of expression should also be guaranteed because it is crucial for development. This is because it enables exchange of ideas and opinions between policymakers and the citizens.

Works Cited

Alexander, Larry. Is there a right of freedom of expression? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Allen, David S., and Robert Jensen. Freeing the First Amendment: critical perspectives on freedom of expression. New York: New York University Press, 1995. Print.

Coliver, Sandra. Secrecy and liberty: national security, freedom of expression, and access to information. The Hague: M. Nijhoff Publishers, 1999. Print.

Curtis, Michael Kent. Free speech, “the people’s darling privilege”: struggles for freedom of expression in American history. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.

Emerson, Thomas I. The system of freedom of expression. New York: Random House, 1970. Print.

Feldman, Stephen M. Free expression and democracy in America a history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print. Cole, George F.. The American system of criminal justice. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1975. Print.

Herman, Susan N.. Taking liberties: the war on terror and the erosion of American democracy. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Jones, Thomas David. Human rights: group defamation, freedom of expression, and the law of nations. The Hague: M. Nijhoff Publishers ;, 1998. Print.

Kretzmer, David. Freedom of speech and incitement against democracy. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000. Print.

Magee, James J.. Freedom of expression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.

Moon, Richard. The constitutional protection of freedom of expression. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Print.

Phelan, James. Patriot Act. Sydney: Hachette Livre Australia, 2007. Print.

Rehnquist, William H.. All the laws but one: civil liberties in wartime. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. The imperial Presidency. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Print.

Stefoff, Rebecca. The Patriot Act. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2011. Print.

Stone, Geoffrey R.. War and liberty: an American dilemma : 1790 to the present. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.

Stoddart, Jennifer. Surveillance, Search or Seizure Powers Extended by Recent Legislation in Canada, Britain, France and the United States. Ontario: Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 2009. Print.

Zencovich, Vincenzo. Freedom of expression: a critical and comparative analysis. Abingdon, Oxon [England: Routledge-Cavendish, 2008. Print.

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