Censorship in Today’s World

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, people live in a society full of censorship. It is about a future where all books are burned because the people decided that knowledge brings pain. In the first hard cover edition, Neil Gaiman wrote the Introduction (April 2013) for Fahrenheit 451 (xi). He stated the following: “This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted.” Censorship is a tool used today by governments across the world to control and stop those who say or write anything that challenges the government’s assumptions.

Freedom of speech allows people to be heard, no matter how the majority objects, the capacity to express themselves without fear of punishment. In the United States the Founding Fathers felt so strongly about this issue that they made freedom of speech the first of the Amendments to the Constitution. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and in the world today, censorship works on the perception that some ideas are dangerous and must be stopped; however, the ideal is to have the decision left to the individual and not the government.

To begin there are different ways to ban books. Most governments have a review process that controls what books people read or what online content they access. In an article written in Censorship.Laws.com, censorship in America is defined as “the act of altering, adjusting, editing, or banning of any or all media resulting from the presumption that its content is perceived to be objectionable, incendiary, illicit, or immoral by the Federal Government of the United States.” Censorship is seen in various areas of life like politics, the internet, media, the news, and religion to name a few.

The freedom to read is necessary to the way of life in free countries yet today that freedom is under attack. Private groups and public authorities throughout the world are working to remove certain books from public schools and silence magazines and newspapers when the government feels the information is not in support of the government’s ideology. Exclusion of reading materials prevents people with inquiring minds from seeking the truth, stretching their mental stimulation, and becoming critical thinkers.

In ThoughtCo.com, an article was written on August 4, 2018 about how schools can ban books without lengthy procedures by choosing not to order the books in the first place. The article stated that because of “witchcraft themes” one elementary school in Florida will not stock two of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. In the article, the Principal explained they did not buy these books because they expected complaints if the children read these books. The article cites that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is fourth on the list of 50 books banned in the United States because of the use of the use of a racial slur (“N-word”). The other 49 books banned in the United States are posted in The New York Times.

Academic freedom in the United States is enjoyed to some degree of protection under the First Amendment, which is an essential element of a democratic society. For example, in 1957 in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, the Court declared: “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

In an article written in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in June 2016, it stated that colleges and universities needed to be protected by the First Amendment to allow teachers the academic freedom to address their students’ questions, the study of materials and sources, and teaching. It further stated that there needed to be engaged discussions between teachers and students without the government discouraging or stopping them. In another article written by The New York Times on October 1, 2018 it was reported that since 2014 the government of Kuwait has banned over 4,000 books which included books that had once been considered untouchable. The article stated that citizens were displeased and organized demonstrations in response to the government’s action. It appears in Kuwait that no book is safe from being banned by the government. Recent books targeted for censorship in Kuwait include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.”

According to the article the books were banned because David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, wore half a bikini. This was considered promiscuous. In an article written by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on September 24, 2018 it was reported that China shut down thousands of websites and online accounts due to content that was considered “harmful” for the people because the online material was spreading ‘improper values, vulgarity or obscenity.” In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Faber explained to Montag that books like the Bible were important because they had quality, texture, pores and features. Faber further explained that the more pores a book has, the more truthfully recorded details of life can get on paper and that makes people become “literary” and tells Montag that is the reason why books are hated and feared. Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying “Censorship represents a tyranny over the mind and is harmful wherever it occurs.”

Next, some governments try to drive people’s thoughts and beliefs and prevent free press. In an article written in The Huffington Post on April 25, 2017, North Korea is one of the most heavily censored countries in the world. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has complete control in of the information that is communicated to the public. The media in this country is owned solely by the government and the official Central Korean News Agency conveys the opinions of the government. In the U.S. Department of State’s website, it notes there are no independent media in North Korea and no deviation from the official government line is tolerated.

The government does not allow any editorial freedom and all stories are centrally directed and reviewed to ensure that they are in line with the government’s ideology. The government also controls its citizens’ academic and cultural content and does do not allow them to listen to foreign media broadcasts. The government takes steps to block radio broadcasts outside of North Korea and modifies television and radio equipment to prevent users from accessing foreign material and other material deemed illegal by the government. Individuals accused of viewing foreign films are reportedly subject to imprisonment or even execution.

The North Korean government imposes harsh punishments for anyone accused of accessing uncensored information or sharing news from countries that it considers its enemies. This is because the North Korean government wants its citizens to be “blind” and does not want its citizens to be offered alternative knowledge to the narrative the government has given them. In a CNN article dated December 29, 2016 it reported that news rarely leaks from North Korea’s authoritarian state; however, stories of Kim’s brutal executions have sometimes filtered out over the past five years. It was cited that Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011 and since then he has ordered 340 people be executed to tighten his hold on power. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Faber tells Montag that the television is “real,” and it tells people what to think, with messages rushing in quickly with their conclusions that people do not have time to protest.

North Korea is strictly controlled by the state to the point where citizens are unable or nearly unable to get their hands on books or other forms of art produced outside the country. This is because the North Korean government does not want its citizens to be offered alternative knowledge to the account the government has given them. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Captain Beatty quotes Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers us again.” The “government” in Fahrenheit 451 does not want people asking questions because then the people will have knowledge and become unhappy. Instead they want people who are happy and are not deep thinkers. That is why the “government” wanted to destroy books to prevent further knowledge and, therefore, questions.

The “government” does not want one person to have more knowledge than the next person. Beatty also told Montag: “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other, then all are happy for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.” In other words, when people begin to learn, it makes them thirsty for more information and they become more aware in the process.

Lastly, Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying “Our liberty depends on the freedom of press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Most recently a journalist for the Washington Post was murdered for speaking out against the Saudi government and a CNN journalist’s White House press pass was taken from him because he asked questions that the President of the United States deemed inappropriate.

Protect Democracy and the Yale Law School Media Freedom of Information and Access Clinic are representing PEN America, a leading organization of writers and literary professionals, in a lawsuit against President Trump for violating the First Amendment rights of journalists by using government powers to punish the speech of his media critics. PEN alleges that President Trump has used, or threatened to use, the regulatory and enforcement powers of government to punish the speech of journalists in at least four ways: initiating a government review to raise postal rates; directing DOJ enforcement actions; interfering with White House press access; and threatening to revoke broadcast licenses.

In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Captain Beatty tells Montag: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war.” He further says: “Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.” Beatty told Montag to remember that they stood against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 during the McCarthy era, during which thousands of Americans were investigated for having Communist sympathies. Like the story line in Fahrenheit 451, neighbors and coworkers were encouraged to report on each other, and nothing more than a suspicion was often enough to begin an investigation. People were encouraged to testify against one another and the accused experienced loss of work, career loss and some even killed themselves.

Bradbury vehemently denied that he was satirically commenting on McCarthy or government censorship. Instead, Bradbury insisted the book was written at the beginning of the television age and was a tale to warn society of how they could well reach to television as a sort of drug. Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said, was a depiction of a society willfully dumbing itself down by staring at screens, stuffing its collective consciousness with useless factoids, empty ideas and throwaway reality. Bradbury’s thoughts were several decades before today’s reality TV and celebrity driven media. Bradbury wrote about a future where technology drove people to block themselves from the world around them, disconnected from each other, and no longer valued books.

Today you cannot go anywhere without observing people engrossed on their iPhones and not interacting with others or texting a person who is sitting across from or next to them. It is troubling that today there are television commercials having to remind parents to engage with their children by reading, talking and singing to them from a very early age to better prepare their kids for school instead of being engrossed on their phones or other media. Fahrenheit 451 argues in favor of literature and critical thinking and against censorship and blind conformity.

In Fahrenheit 451, it was noted that from a young age Bradbury was affected by accounts of the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria and the loss of many classical works that we now know only by title or through fragments of surviving parchment. Based on today’s society Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury’s prediction of a world without actual books is not too far off. Government budget cuts have also resulted in less support for public libraries and online books now replace actual books you can touch.

Bradbury experienced opposition since Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 so it is funny that a book about banned books experienced censorship. In the ThoughtCo.com article written on August 4, 2018 it talked about one of Bradbury’s plays that was sent to a university to be produced. The university had a concern that there were no female characters in the play. The university did not state any issues with the content of the play or the fact that there was a reason it featured only men. The play was not produced and was in effect censored because it did not want to offend a certain group at the school: women.

In closing, censorship has been around for a long time and was a thought that preceded the United States Constitution; hence, the First Amendment. Censorship silences people’s opinions, ideas and forces moral and ethical values on society. Some people believe censorship is a violation of their First Amendment right and others believe censorship is needed to protect people’s well-being in a world filled with violent and abusive behavior. All media needs to have checks and balances to ensure the information being published is accurate so that people, and not the government, can choose to be exposed to the appropriate awareness of society, and the world in general, as it really exists and not like the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451.


Works Cited

  1. Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon &Schuster, 1951, pp. xi, 55, 58, 59, 79, 80, 102, 168. Print.
  2. “Bradbury Still Believes in the Heat of Fahrenheit 451.” Seattle Times, March 12, 1993. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19930312&slug=1689996
  3. Chervokas, Jason and Watson, Tom. “50 Most Frequently Banned Books.” New York Times, August 22, 1997. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/cyber/nation/082297nation-list.html
  4. “China shuts down 4,000 websites in purge on ‘improper values.’” British Broadcasting Corporation, 24 September 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-45625278
  5. Jerreat, Jessica. “North Korean Censorship.” Huffington Post, 04-25-2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/north-korean-censorship_us_58fe78afe4b086ce58981445
  6. Kelly, Melissa. ‘Censorship and Book Banning in America.’ ThoughtCo, Aug. 4, 2018, https://www.thoughtco.com/censorship-and-book-banning-in-america-6414
  7. Kwon, K. J., and Ben Westcott. “Jong Un has Executed Over 300 People Since Coming to Power.” CNN, December 29, 2016. https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/29/asia/kim-jong-un-executions/index.html
  8. Lankov, Andrei. “North Korean Censorship Blinds Not Just the People, But Also Their Rulers.” Radio Free Asia, 2016-03-14 https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/censorship-03142016145646.html
  9. Miller, Vanessa. “59 Years of Commemorating Academic Freedom: The Legacy of ‘Sweezy v. New Hampshire.’” Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), June 17, 2016. https://www.thefire.org/59-years-of-commemorating-academic-freedom-the-legacy-of-sweezy-v-new-hampshire/
  10. Nordland, Rod. “From Orwell to ‘Little Mermaid,’ Kuwait Steps Up Book Banning.” New York Times, October 1, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/01/world/middleeast/kuwait-ban-books.html
  11. “PEN America Sues President Trump for Violating Journalists’ First Amendment Rights.” National Coalition Against Censorship. October 16, 2018. https://ncac.org/news/pen-america-sues-president-trump-for-violating-journalists-first-amendment-rights
  12. “Review of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.” Rhapsody in Books, May 20, 2009. https://rhapsodyinbooks.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/review-of-%E2%80%9Cfahrenheit-451%E2%80%9D-by-ray-bradbury/
  13. “Report on Human Rights Abuses or Censorship in North Korea.” US Department of State, July 6, 2016. https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/259366.htm
  14. “Thomas Jefferson Quotes on Censorship.” AZ Quotes. https://www.azquotes.com/author/7392-Thomas_Jefferson/tag/censorship
  15. United States Supreme Court Sweezy v. New Hampshire, Decided June 17, 1957. Case Law.Find Law. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/354/234.html
  16. Weller, Sam. “Did Ray Bradbury do a 180 on ‘Fahrenheit 451’?” Dallas News, April 12, 2013. https://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2018/11/08/20130412-sam-weller-ray-bradburys-180-on-fahrenheit-451
  17. “What you Didn’t Know About Censorship in America.” Censorsip.Laws.com. https://censorship.laws.com/censorship-in-america