The Meaning of Censorship

Geoff Kemp
University of Auckland

The view that censorship has ‘the same characteristics in every
era’ has been challenged by recent scholarship but this too labours
under an assumption about the meaning of censorship. For most of the
past two millennia the term ‘censorship’ has not been taken to
mean what we generally take it to mean and did not have today’s
negative connotations. Until well into the nineteenth century, the
term mainly recalled, usually positively, the ancient Roman office of
Censor, whose duties embraced public accounting (via the census),
alongside oversight of morals and manners in society and integrity in
the senate. To examine the history of censorship, therefore, is not to
find a clear target just waiting to be opposed given sufficient
enlightenment over time.

This paper considers the history of how the words ‘censor’ and
‘censorship’ acquired their modern English meaning in the
nineteenth century. The transformation tracks the reaction of
classical liberalism against the moralisation of politics by classical
republicanism, against the backdrop of the French Revolution, and the
emergence of representative government as a principle and practice
centred on authorisation tied to accountability.

Milton’s isolated reference to the ‘censor’s hand’ in
Areopagitica preceded the linking of the classical meaning to print
from the early eighteenth century, though not as state-imposed press
control but by periodical writers proclaiming themselves censors of
society’s virtue, in the Roman manner but bringing nascent public
opinion to bear on transgressions. From this moral and literary
beginning emerged the claim that the press could bring the power of
the public to bear on politicians’ virtue or vice, encapsulated
towards the end of the century in Jefferson’s contention (echoed by
Madison) that ‘the people are the only censors of their
governors’, and newspapers the vehicle of censorial public opinion.

Later in the next century, Mill’s famous fear was public
opinion’s ‘hostile and dreaded censorship’ of individual belief
and behaviour, guiding a government ‘identified with the people’.
In the decades around On Liberty, ‘censorship’ consolidated its
passage to the term and evaluation recognisable today, describing
official, primarily state regulation of expression, decried in liberal
circles. The accountability function of censorship was meanwhile
assumed by the ‘Fourth Estate’, censuring and correcting
government in the public’s name and claiming freedom from state
censorship to do so. Writers and journalists were now the
anti-censors, not the censors.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900