Censorship and Regulation

Camera at London Book Fair 2011 (English PEN/Robert Sharp)

This is the second instalment of our weekly project, Freedom to Write: A Users Guide.


Censorship is the suppression or proscription of speech or writing that is deemed obscene, indecent, or unduly controversial. It is a form of ‘prior restraint’. This means that it restricts material prior to publication. Censorship is a serious infringement of the right to free speech and as such it is subject to particular scrutiny by the courts. It is generally accepted that in the absence of clear evidence that the material will cause concrete harm, censorship should be avoided. Ordinarily ‘subsequent restraint’, a sanction imposed after publication, is deemed more appropriate and proportionate. This is particularly the case with news journalism where the subject matter is a perishable commodity that would lose its value if restrained for any period of time.

Censorship includes injunctions that prevent publication and the seizure of material that is about to be published. Sanctions of subsequent restraint include criminal penalties (such as for incitement to racial hatred), damages (such as for revealing a person’s private information), and seizure of published material (for example, if it reveals official secrets or is obscene).

When a UK court deals with matters that might affect freedom of speech, it is required (under section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998) to have particular regard to the right to freedom tospeech. There may be situations where people attempt to restrain publication on an interim basis. This means that they seek an injunction to stop material being published before there has been a trial about whether that material can be published. A court will not order an interim injunction unless it is convinced that, following a full trial, publication would not be allowed.

The Press Complaints Commission polices a code regulating the activities of the media. However, the PCC does not have the power to restrain or censor publications, nor can it award damages in respect of publications found to have breached the code.


Broadcasting is subject to greater censorship than the written word. Human rights law entitles the state to regulate broadcasting, cinema and television by a system of licensing. This is to ensure that broadcasts do not offend against good taste, decency and public feeling, that they do not incite crime or disorder, and that the news is presented with impartiality and accuracy. Television and radio broadcasts are regulated by Ofcom and film censorship is governed by the Cinemas Act 1985 and the British Board of Film Classification.

Next week: Satire, Exaggeration, and Insult

Photo: Robert Sharp / English PEN

Last reviewed: March 2012

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