Censorship through the Centuries: Free Speech Suppression by the Government and the Mainstream Media
The United States government, which prides itself in being the leading force in defending freedom throughout the world, has a history of putting a muzzle on news organizations and individuals throughout its history. From the early colonial period to the beginnings of the internet, the state has consistently silenced its critics, which seems to be its true nature.
The Sedition Act of 1798
Signed into law by the Federalist Party president John Adams on July 14, 1798, the Sedition Act made it illegal to print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous, and malicious writing about the government. Section 2 of the Sedition Act outlines the punishment for violating this new law: “Such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”
This law was a blatant violation of the First Amendment in the Constitution, which was ratified only nine years before. The act finally expired after Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800, and all those convicted under the act were pardoned. However, this would not be the last time the US government tried to use what Jefferson said was a “rod of iron” to silence others.
Censorship in the Civil War
During times of peace, people may not be as willing to give up their or other people’s liberty. During times of war, however, the propaganda produced by the state will convince people that certain rights must be curbed in the name of security and victory and to protest this would be unpatriotic. The First Amendment Encyclopedia analyzes the actions of censorship taken by the Union during the Civil War and their justification for such actions. The article states: “Throughout the war, newspaper reporters and editors were arrested without due process for opposing the draft, discouraging enlistments in the Union army, or even criticizing the income tax.”
To the Union military and government, this censorship was necessary to ensure victory against the rebels, even if the First Amendment had been violated. President Abraham Lincoln, in The Truth from an Honest Man, furthered this excuse by proposing the question of whether he should “shoot a simple-minded soldier-boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”
Some Northerners bought into this and started riots that targeted newspapers such as the Stark County Democrat in Canton, Ohio. The editor for this newspaper, Archibald McGregor, would later be arrested on unspecified charges. The town’s Republican postmaster accompanied the soldiers making the arrest, lending credibility that the charges had been politically motivated.
World War I and the Espionage Act
A common theme among the Union leadership’s justification for censorship was national security, that all opposition to the war would sow discontent among the troops and cause desertion and ultimately defeat. In April 1917, when the United States entered the Great War against the Central powers, President Woodrow Wilson declared that Germany had “filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity.”
With this, President Wilson passed the Espionage Act in 1917. This law gave the Department of Justice the power to charge individuals for disloyalty and gave the postmaster general the power to restrict mail. The Supreme Court, an institution allegedly created to interpret the Constitution, not only failed to protect free speech but furthered its determent. In the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that Schenck posed a “clear and present danger” after distributing leaflets suggesting that the military draft was a form of involuntary servitude and therefore a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Schenck case inspired Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s infamous “shouting fire in a theater” statement to justify suppressing free speech.
Ultimately, the Espionage Act saw 2,168 people prosecuted by the end of the war, and according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, 1,055 of these people would be convicted and punished with fines up to $10,000 and up to twenty years imprisonment.
World War II and Vietnam
After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8985, which established the Office of Censorship, without approval from Congress. President Roosevelt gave the director of the Office of Censorship the power to censor international communications at his absolute discretion. The National Archives provides us with actions of censorship taken by high-ranking government officials such as the war secretary and Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover:
On December 8, 1941, the secretary of war ordered corps area commanders to inaugurate censorship of telephone and telegraph wires crossing international borders. Three days later, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, on presidential authority, helped set up a postal censorship program to be carried out by the War Department. He was ordered to hold this temporary position until his civilian replacement could be chosen.
The Office of Censorship was abolished under Executive Order 9631 in 1945, but the tone toward free press and government would enter a new era. With the introduction of televised news into American households, any event such as wars could now be recorded and presented to millions of people. So, when the Vietnam War started, people believed they could see firsthand what it was like on the ground. However, as the Harvard Crimson writes:
Only about 22 percent of all television reports from Vietnam before 1968 showed “actual combat, and often this was minimal—a few incoming mortar rounds or a crackle of sniper fire.” In addition, of 167 film reports he reviewed, “only 16 had more than one video shot of the dead or wounded.” The American people simply did not see gore night after night.
Vietnam offered a new form of censorship that is still prevalent today: noncritical reporting in the place of outright censorship. During the Gulf War and the war on terror, the media would portray these wars as crusades for democracy and use “experts” to justify them.
The War on Terror and Beyond
The first Gulf War ended after just forty-three days of combat, a quick American victory that was painted as a cure for the defeat in Vietnam. However, when freelance journalist Jon Alpert, a longtime contributor to NBC News, visited Iraq and filmed hours of uncensored footage of the collateral damage, his relationship with the news network was terminated. As Variety states:
After viewing Alpert’s footage, “NBC Nightly News” topper Steve Friedman and anchorman Tom Brokaw knew they had a scoop and were eager to put the stuff on the air. But NBC News supremo Michael Gartner, who never saw the footage, put the kibosh on the deal. And he put an end to Alpert’s 12-year relationship with the Peacock net’s news division.
Jon Alpert would take his footage to CBS, where executive producer Tom Bettag tentatively approved it, but the content never aired: “While Alpert was cutting the piece, he got a call from CBS informing him that Bettag had been fired and that his piece was killed. By the time he went to ABC, the news division had a man in Baghdad.”
During the Iraq War in 2003, the major media outlets continued the trend of both noncritical news reporting and finding justification for this new war. So-called experts like John Bolton and others who were more often than not prowar stood unchallenged by differing ideas. In an excerpt from the book When the Press Fails, a New York Times article stated:
We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge.
It’s easy twenty years later to examine the failures of both the government and media; even many media outlets such as CNN would publish pieces of how they regret pushing the war in Iraq. However, as the years since have shown, these news organizations have continued to justify their actions and mostly ignore wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and most recently Ukraine that have American foreign policy fingerprints all over them.