The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Censorship Quotes

Over the years, I've been censored for simply expressing an unapproved opinion. The Academy of American Poets censored me for doing so and that resulted in this page. Censorship at Fitchburg State College (Massachusetts) provoked me to found The American Dissident in 1998. Now and then, I'll send the following list of quotes to members of the educated mob in the seemingly vain hope of enlightening a few of them...

In his letter to Helvetius, Voltaire wrote that beautiful phrase: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This formulates a fundamental ethical principle of modern culture. Any suppression of views, even when the views that are being forcibly suppressed are erroneous, must lead, in the final analysis, away from the truth, for truth can be attained only through the interaction of views that are equal and free. Any interference with freedom of thought and words, no matter how discreet the technique or name given to such censorship, is a scandal in the twentieth century and a shackle on our emerging literature.
—Milan Kundera


L’intolleranza tende a censurare, e la censura accresce l’ignoranza della ragione altrui e quindi l’intolleranza stessa: è un circulo vizioso rigido difficile da spezzare [Intolerance tends to result in censorship, and censorship increases ignorance in the reasoning of others and therefore intolerance itself: it is a rigidly vicious circle difficult to break]
—Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati 


Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real. Somewhere in their upbringing they were shielded against the total facts of our experience. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.
—Charles Bukowski


All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grieviously misrepresented. […]
If already the Pulitzer Prize is so important, it is not absurd to suggest that in another generation it may, with the actual terms of the award ignored, become the one thing for which any ambitious novelist will strive; and the administrators of the prize may become a supreme court, a college of cardinals, so rooted and so sacred that to challenge them will be to commit blasphemy. Such is the French Academy, and we have had the spectacle of even an Anatole France intriguing for election. 
Between the Pulitzer Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and its training-school, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, amateur boards of censorship, and the inquisition of earnest literary ladies, every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize. 
I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them of the final judges of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.

—Sinclair Lewis, “Letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee” (The Man from Main Street)


We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859


The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859


Nowadays this kind of veiled censorship even extends to books. The MOI [Ministry of Information] does not, of course, dictate a party line or issue an index expurgatorius. It merely ‘advises’. Publishers take manuscripts to the MOI and MOI ‘suggests’ that this or that is undesirable or premature, or ‘would serve no good purpose’. And although there is no definite prohibition, no clear statement that this or that must not be printed, official policy is never flouted. (As I Please, Tribune, 7 July 1944)

—George Orwell


The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
—George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press” (Excerpt from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm; published 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement, also 1993, in the Everyman’s Library edition of Animal Farm)


What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. 

—Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Rauch, “Censorship Is Harmful”


Glavlit is the Russian acronym for the body which censored all printed matter in the USSR. Each glavlit censor was supplied with a secret book of instructions, constantly amended and updated, which lists the topics that may not be mentioned in print.

—Vladimir Lakshin, Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky and Novy Mir (1980)


Many union members and even delegates at this congress know how they themselves bowed to the pressure of censorship and made concessions in the structure and concept of their books, changing chapters, pages, paragraphs, sentences, giving them innocuous titles, only to see them finally in print, even if it meant distorting them irremediably. 
—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1967 Letter to the Congress of Soviet Writers 


Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, commencement address to Harvard College in 1978


So I have no grounds to complain; on the contrary, writers should consider the condition of permanent controversiality to be invigorating, part of the risk envolved in choosing the profesión. It is a fact of life that writers have always and with due consideration and great pleasure spit in the soup of the high and mighty. That is what makes the history of literature analogous to the development and refinement of censorship.
—Gunter Grass, Nobel Lecture 


El censor hizo un trabajo excelente...
—Guillermo Cabrera Infante

In a nation whose future depends upon an education in freedom, colleges and universities are teaching the values of censorship, self-censorship, and self-righteous abuse of power... Universities have become the enemy of a free society, and it is time for the citizens of that society to recognize this scandal of enormous proportions and to hold these institutions to account... Universities are administered, above all, not by ideological zealots, but by careerists who have made a Faustian deal.
The ultimate force of the shadow university is its ability to punish students and, increasingly behind closed doors, far from public and even campus scrutiny... The second imposition of the shadow university is inescapable, and is an exercise of something truly chilling: a hidden, systematic assault upon liberty, individualism, dignity, due process, and equality before the law. P.4-5
—Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses


Initially, I hadn’t even thought of suppression as a problem in science and academia. Now I realize that it is pervasive. Each case has its own peculiarities, but there are some regularly recurring “issues of suppression cases. First, someone does something–research, teaching or public comment–that threatens a powerful interest group. Second, there is subsequent attack on the person. This might be censorship, disciplinary proceedings, slander, transfer, dismissal, or blacklisting. A few cases are dramatic. [...] But most cases are more subtle. Job applications don’t lead to jobs; publications are rejected; promotion is denied; grant applications are unsuccessful.
—Brian Martin, President of Whistleblowers Australia


High on the list is the myth that we now live in an ‘information age’–when, in fact, we live in a media age, in which the available information is repetitive, ‘safe’, and limited by invisible boundaries. 
In the respectable media, especially broadcasting, discussion of widespread and subliminal censorship is a taboo subject. P.244
—John Pilger, Hidden Agendas


Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature, sex is a weak second.
—Phil Kerby former editorial writer for The Los Angeles Times


We’re not in the business of censorship. If you scratch one word, where does it stop?
—Harold Washington, black mayor of Chicago 


Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime.
—Justice Potter Stewart, dissenting opinion in US v. Ginzberg (1965)

As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.
—Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority


The result [of school censorship] usually is an unquestioning attitude among students, an unhealthy acquiescence in pronouncements of school authorities no matter how unfair or oppressive they may be. In such authoritarian schools, students' rights are routinely denied, with little or no protest by students. The cost of such controls is not only the absence of a free student press but also bland, apathetic students who are unaware of or uninterested in their rights…
Self-censorship, the result of years of unconstitutional administrative and faculty censorship, has created passivity among students and made them cynical about the guarantees of a free press under the First Amendment.
—The RFK Memorial Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism pointed out.


"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."

—From The Swedish "Censorship" Homepage (since censored!)


It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies.
Restriction on free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.

Fear of ideas makes us impotent and ineffective.

Thus if the First Amendment means anything in this field, it must allow protests even against the moral code that the standard of the day sets for the community. In other words, literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.

The great and invigorating influences in American life have been the unorthodox: the people who challenge an existing institution of way of life, or say and so things that make people think.

—William O. Douglas


All despotisms should be considered problems of mental hygiene, and all support of censorship should be considered as problems of abnormal psychology.
Censorship always protects and perpetuates every horror of the prevailing forms of oppression. With us, its subtle disguises increase its evils by creating delusions of safety, liberty and democracy. It precludes that intelligence which is necessary to hasten wholesome and natural social evolution.
—Theodore Schroeder


The vigor and passion with which Solzhenitsyn began his crusade to liberate literature from state censorship may surpise the Western reader. It is well to remember, however, that Russians regard literature, not just as a source of entertainment or aesthetic pleasure, but rather as an open forum for the most serious discussion of social ills, the destingy of the nation, and the goals and aspirations of their nation and mankind. Thus without a free and honest literature, the Russians and other nationalities in the Soviet Union lack the opportunity to discuss and, by extension, to think creatively about their past and future, and to shape their own destiny.
—Andrej Kodjak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn


Censorship is the commonest social blasphemy because it is mostly concealed, built into us by indolence, self-interest, and cowardice.
—John Osborne


I look upon those who would deny others the right to urge and argue their position, however irksome and pernicious they may seem, as intellectual and moral cowards.

—William E. Borah


If the press is not free, if speech is not independent and untrammeled, if the mind is shackled or made impotent through fear, it makes no difference under what form of government you live, you are a subject and not a citizen.
—William E. Borah


Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficient. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

—Chief Justice Louis D. Brandeis

All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of all censorships. There is the whole case against censorships in a nutshell.
—George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren's Profession

If you can't annoy somebody with what you write, I think there's little point in writing.
—Kingsley Amis, British novelist, 1971

Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself.
—Justice Potter Stewart

Free speech is life itself.
—Salman Rushdie

The problem of freedom in America is that of maintaining a competition of ideas, and you do not achieve that by silencing one brand of idea.
—Max Lerner

"Freedom of speech means that you shall not do something to people either for the views they have, or the views they express, or the words they speak or write."
—Hugo L. Black, U.S. Supreme Court Justice 1963

Without free speech no search for truth is possible... no discovery of truth is useful... Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.
—Charles Bradlaugh

Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.
—Potter Stewart

The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.
—David Ben-Gurion

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.
—Noam Chomsky

Take away the right to say "fuck" and you take away the right to say "fuck the government."
—Lenny Bruce


Les hommes se jugent à l’usage qu’ils font de leur puissance. Il est remarquable que les âmes inférieures ont toujours tendance à abuser des parcelles de pouvoir que le hasard ou la bêtise leur ont confiées.
—Camus face à la censure de Vichy


C’est le propre des censures violentes d’accréditer les opinions qu’elles attaquent. [It is characteristic of vicious censorship to give credence to the very opinions it seeks to annihilate. trad. gts] 
—Voltaire, “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne”


La censure, quelle qu’elle soit, me paraît une monstruosité, une chose pire que l’homicide ; l’attentat contre la pensée est un crime de lèse âme. 
—Gustave Flaubert

[It] puts a severe strain on the very power principle that the writer has an absolute right to say what he likes. In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.
—Roald Dahl

The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are “offensive” to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom of the press. That test would make it possible to ban any paper or any journal or magazine in some benighted place. The First Amendment was designed “to invite dispute,” to induce “a condition of unrest,” to “create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,” and even to stir “people to anger.” Terminiello v. Chicago [1949]. The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are “offensive” to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. No greater leveler of speech or literature has ever been designed. To give the power to the censor, as we do today, is to make a sharp and radical break with the traditions of free society. The First Amendment was not fashioned as a vehicle for dispensing tranquillizers to the people. Its prime function was to keep debate open to “offensive” as well as to “staid” people. The tendency throughout history has been to subdue the individual and to exalt the power of government. The use of the standard “offensive” gives authority to government that cuts the very vitals out of the First Amendment. As is intimated by the Court’s opinion, the materials before us may be garbage. But so is much of what is said in political campaigns, in the daily press, on TV, or over radio. By reason of the First Amendment—and solely because of it—speakers and publishers have not been threatened or subdued because their thoughts and ideas may be “offensive” to some…
—JusticeWilliam O. Douglas, “There Should Be No Obscenity Exception to Free Speech”


Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.
—Sinclair Lewis, Nobel Lecture


“¿Por qué no pone usted un periódico suyo? ¿Cuándo sale Fígaro? ¡Es idea peregrina! Ya he visto en los demás periódicos la publicación del permiso para el periódico nuevo. ¿Saldrá por fin en febrero, en marzo? ¿Cuándo? (...) Dicho y hecho, concibamos el plan. El periódico se titulará Fígaro, un nombre propio; esto no significa nada y a nada compromete, ni a observar, ni a revistar, ni a ser eco de nadie, ni a chupar flores, ni a compilar, ni a maldita Dios la cosa. El periódico tratará de todo. ¿Qué menos? Pero como no ha de ser ni tan grande como nuestra paciencia, ni tan corto como nuestra esperanza, y como han de caber mis artículos, no pondremos las reales órdenes. Por otra parte no gusto de afligir a nadie; por consiguiente no se pondrán los reales nombramientos; menos gusto de estar siempre diciendo la misma cosa; por lo tanto, fuera las partes oficiales. Estoy decidido a no gastar palabras en balde; mi periódico ha de ser toda sustancia; así, cada sesión de cortes vendrá en dos líneas, algunos días menos, como de esas veces no ocupará nada. (...) es preciso resignarse, esperar... Al fin lo habrá todo... demasiado va a haber luego... ésta es la idea que me detiene, por fin: que cuando haya director, redactores, impresor, cajistas, papel... entonces también habrá censor... Eso sí, eso siempre lo hay... ni hay que mandarle hacer, ni hay que esperar...”

“[...] No existe un público único, invariable, juez imparcial, como se pretende; que cada clase de la sociedad tiene su público particular, de cuyos rasgos y caracteres diversos y aun heterogéneos se compone la fisionomía monstruosa del que llamamos público; Que éste es caprichoso, y casi siempre tan injusto y parcial como la mayor parte de los hombres que le componen; que es intolerante al mismo tiempo que sufrido, [...] que olvida con facilidad e ingratitud los servicios más importantes, y premia con usura a quien le lisonjea y le engaña; y, por último, que con gran sinrazón queremos confundirle con la posteridad, que casi siempre revoca sus fallos interesados”.

“[...] un sinnúmero de oficinistas y de gentes ocupadas o no ocupadas el resto de la semana se afeita, se muda, se viste y se perfila; veo que a primera hora llena las iglesias, la mayor parte por ver y ser visto[...] y escribo en mi libro: El público oye misa, el público coquetea, pierde el tiempo y se ocupa en futesas: idea que confirmo al pasar por la Puerta del Sol”.

"Somos satíricos porque queremos criticar abusos, porque quisiéramos contribuir con nuestras débiles fuerzas a la perfección posible de la sociedad a que tenemos la honra de pertenecer".
—Mariano José de Larra, padre del periodismo español moderno


Codes against “offensive speech,” however, are utterly incompatible with the goals of higher education. After all, the concept of “academic freedom,” discussed later in this Guide, ensured, in theory at least, that discussion of even the most controversial and provocative issues should be vigorous and unfettered on campuses, all in the name of the search for truth that almost all liberal arts institutions long have claimed as their governing ethic. Thus far, courts have agreed, at least on constitutional grounds, striking down speech codes virtually every time that they have been directly challenged.
—Constitutional lawyers French, Lukianoff and Silverglate, FIRE’s guide to Free Speech on Campus


If some zealots had their way all such disagreement would be hate speech.—p 98
As the Supreme Court has noted, forms of speech such as biting parody and spiteful political cartoons are time-honored ways of communicating disapproval. Indeed, parody and satire succeed in their mission only when they inflict distress.—p 99
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization (1939), it has been settled in the law that public parks—since they are held in trust for the public and have traditionally been used for assembly, communication, and public discussion—are “traditional” public forums. […] Once a place has been designated a public forum, the government’s power to limit speech there is extremely narrow. Viewpoint discrimination is never permissible. Content discrimination (discrimination based on the subject matter of the speech, whatever the point of view taken on it) is acceptable only if the government can show the following: 
1) There is a compelling state interest for the exclusion.
2) The regulation making the exclusion is narrowly drawn to achieve that state interest
3) The regulation leaves open ample alternative channels for the communication.—p 101
Speech has been broadly defined as an expression that includes, but is not limited to, what you wear, read, say, paint, perform, believe, protest, or even silently resist. “Speech activites” include leafleting, picketing, symbolic acts, wearing armbands, demonstrations, speeches, forums, concerts, motion pictures, stage performances, remaining silent, and so on.—p. 24
“[…] the vitality of your college or university depends in great part on the freedom of your teachers to speak freely, including to speak freely with you [the student].—p 110
The concept of defamation includes both libel (usually, written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation), although the two are frequently confused and lumped together. […] If you are accused of libel, don’t panic. Although defamation is one of the most frequently made claims in law, it is also one of the most frequently dismissed. […] If a statement is true it is not defamatory. […] A statement of opinion, by itself, cannot be defamation. […] In other words, defamation is about objective harm, not about subjective hurt.
[…] sheltering students from speech is patronizing and paternalistic. 
Is the administration simply interested in “quiet on its watch” rather than real education and honest human interaction? Remind administrators that pain and offense—the inevitable by-product of having ones fundamental beliefs challenged—is a vital part of the educational process, and that if students graduate without ever having to evaluate their positions on fundamental principles, then the university has failed them. Finally, for those who are not interested in principled arguments, remind them that history shows us that the censors of one generation are the censored of the next. […] You are part of the community; do not let the administration that it must censor speech to please the community. The idea that there is a conflict between free speech and the academic community fundamentally misunderstands both the goals of higher education and the nature and role of free speech.—p. 136
—Constitutional lawyers French, Lukianoff and Silverglate, FIRE’s guide to Free Speech on Campus