Censorship and the written word

'Spycatcher' book cover© Penguin Viking, 1987.
Source / activity 1: Spycatcher

Over the centuries, many books have been banned, censored or challenged for not conforming to the political, religious or moral codes of their day.

From state-sponsored censorship to pressure from religious extremists, or simply society's belief in certain types of unacceptable behaviour, the stifling of intellectual expression has gone on for as long as information has been shared between people.


Direct censorship is imposed by the enactment of laws, some strong enough to deter publishing in the first place. The ideal of freedom of expression is strongly linked to human rights and democracy. Global events in the recent years have shown that human desire for intellectual freedom exists as passionately as governments' desire to restrict it.

Developments such as Twitter and Wikileaks show that the fight to preserve freedom of speech is a long war with battles taking many forms.

Exploring the issues

This resource looks at some of the issues surrounding the censorship or outright ban of seven items. The accompanying questions serve as starting points for further discussion or research into that particular publication and the issues surrounding its suppression.


Anything that challenges society's norms will often find loud objections, sometimes leading to outlawing particular behaviours or activities.

Yet even where such behaviour is legal, there will always be people who will object to something they do not agree with, whether on religious grounds or because of personal beliefs and prejudices.

Of course, social mores differ from place to place. Threats to a society's self-image or the fear of social disorder can be a powerful drive for the suppression of information, but opposition and constructive debate can change society's values and standards over time.

Ironically, successful challenges to injustices such as racism, sexism and so on, what is considered to be political correctness, has itself now become an effective censorship tool. It encourages people to self-censor in order to maintain social conformity or else risk ostracism.

Source / Activity 1



Politics and society main page


Censorship related material at NLS

Browse a selection of NLS material relating to all aspects of censorship by typing the term 'censorship' in the search box above.


Visit the 'Banned books' web pages that accompanied our blockbuster 2011 exhibition.

Censorship on the web

Index on Censorship is Britain's leading organisation promoting freedom of expression.


'The Guardian' website has a dedicated section on global press and media censorship.


Scottish PEN is part of a global organisation committed to campaigning for writers under threat.

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