Historical & Modern Censorship in the Book Industry

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Print media has been subject to various forms of censorship for thousands of years. This lesson explores the characteristics of censorship, the methods used to carry it out, and examples of its practice in historical and modern times.

The Hidden Danger Present in A Charlie Brown Christmas

If you're unlucky enough to be committed to the Texas Department of Corrections, you'd better not be caught reading A Charlie Brown Christmas. That's a prohibited book. So are the books, The Color Purple, A Time to Kill, and Memoirs of a Geisha. However, if you wanted to read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, you're in luck since that book is not banned by the Department of Corrections overseeing your incarceration.

Characteristics of Censorship

In December, the New York Times ran a piece describing how Texas had banned more than 10,000 books from their prison system. Some of the banned books made sense, but some of them left many scratching their head in bewilderment. Censorship, the act of limiting or prohibiting the consumption of a media product, is something that has taken place all around the world for thousands of years. In the case of the Texas Department of Corrections, it's clear that censorship is still alive and well and not always logical.

Censorship in print media is alive and well.


When characterizing the nature and extent of censorship, the term scope is used to describe just how far-reaching the censorship efforts are. In the example case, the scope of the censorship is universal to individuals in prison. In other cases, censorship exists but isn't quite as far-reaching. In medieval times, the scope of censorship included a number of religious works, including the Bible and the Koran, in many regions and locales. In modern times, limited censorship is still exercised in school libraries.


Censorship can be brought about in a number of ways, but the most common form is to simply make the tangible media unavailable by withdrawing it from shelves or prohibiting it from being purchased by retailers. Historically, books that became the victims of censorship were publicly burned.


While there are a number of reasons that censorship is practiced, one of the primary reasons for restricting certain media is a fear that ideas spread in books would cause leaders to lose power. In countries like North Korea, censorship is so profound that many of the country's people have never consumed printed or electronic media from non-censored sources.

Censorship is so dangerous that the Founding Fathers of the United States did their best to make sure that a free press was constitutionally protected. This protection allows journalists to report the truth, even when it is unfavorable to the government or government officials. The Founding Fathers knew that this was one way to keep government leaders honest and committed to serving the people who elected them.

The United States Constitution specifically protects the freedom of the press so that censorship cannot give rise to a dictatorship.

What's Been Censored and Why?

If we refer back to the example on censorship in Texas prisons, some of the prohibited books actually make sense. The Rand McNally Road Atlas is banned because the Department of Corrections does not want incarcerated individuals to use the guide to plan escape routes. Retail publications like the Sears catalog are restricted because some pages depict individuals modeling underwear. Unfortunately however, the list of 10,000 banned books includes a vast number of titles that the danger of which is dubious at best.

In the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church banned the Bible in common language, the reason was rooted in the desire of church leaders to exercise theocratic control over individuals who could not read and determine for themselves just how bad the situation really was.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church burned all manner of religious works, usually along with their authors and owners.

In 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was targeted by a public librarian because the language that was used in the dialogue between Jim and Huck was too coarse and immoral for public consumption. In 1957, the book was again subject to censorship when civil rights leaders in the NAACP objected to the book's use of language which is now widely recognized as offensive racial slurs.

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