The United States of America is a North American country which primarily worships Christianity as a common religion. However, it has no state religion.
The U.S. is home of some of the world's most stringent free speech protections thanks to The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; as such, the government basically can't ban anything on the basis of its content, (except for child pornography, and even then it's defined narrowly as being live-action porn with an underage actor. The PROTECT act of 2003 effectively banned some forms of simulated child pornography, but that section was struck down. The rationale here is that since underage actors necessarily cannot consent to being in a porn film, they are by definition exploited, and such works do not merit First Amendment protection). Nevertheless, the U.S. is still home to many "banned" works because of the influence of lobby groups on distributors and the Federal Communications Commission. A select few works are banned from commercial distribution because they contain multiple copyright violations.
This means that in spite of these protections, it is entirely possible for stores, theaters, and libraries to all refuse to sell or distribute a given work; a copyright holder might just choose not to bother and not release the work. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) technically "owns" the radio and TV airwaves and has a big say in what can be displayed on those channels. Its criteria for doing so are not made public, and it decides these things on a quasi-judicial basis — i.e. it has precedents and relies on those to make decisions. This setup means that the only way to know what the FCC doesn't like is to break its rules. Most networks will self-censor to avoid bans, viewer complaints, and possible FCC fines.
Historically, there were even more avenues to ban or restrict content, such as the Hays Code and the Comics Code. These were self-censorship bodies, though, and as more and more works started to push the limits of what was acceptable, such bodies have gone by the wayside.
- Most of the pornographic works featuring Traci Lords are considered child pornography since they had been filmed while she was under 18. Lords had lied about her age when they were filmed. This led to two things: first, being in a way related to an important Supreme Court case regarding the First Amendment, and second, because one of those works was an issue of Penthouse magazine which was already infamous for a nude pictorial which resulted in Miss America winner Vanessa Williams being stripped of her title.
- As pointed out by the late George Carlin during his The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television monologue, due to FCC guidelines, there are seven words which cannot be said in TV and in radio, which are "shit", "piss", "fuck", "cunt", "cocksucker", "motherfucker", and "tits". However, these guidelines do not apply to non-broadcast media such as cable television, satellite TV, or satellite radio, which have more lenient guidelines.
Between July 1, 1934 and November 1, 1968, the film industry was regulated by the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the "Hays Code", named after its ideator, Will H. Hays, who was the president of the MPPDA between 1922 and 1945), which restricted certain sorts of contents present in movies.
There is no official government group that censors movie, but multiple TV stations do censor movies to align with network standards, and some movies are censored in order to get certain MPA ratings.
- Titicut Follies - this 1967 documentary about a mental ward, was banned from public release for several decades. Officially, the state of Massachusetts thought the film infringed on the privacy of the patients in the film; but, the real problem was that it showed how the state of Massachusetts treated the mentally ill in its care (enough to say, not well). It remains one of the most embarrassing moments for free speech in the US, but weirdly, the ban had a positive effect; the state of Massachusetts was forced to acknowledge people had a right to privacy on the state level. The ban was lifted in 1991 by the state due to the supposed privacy concerns becoming less important as most of the inmates featured in the film passed away in the intervening years, although it ordered that a disclaimer explaining that conditions had improved at the mental ward since 1967 be added.
- The Tin Drum - this movie was banned for a briefly in Oklahoma County due to being deemed as obscene, which only increased interest in the film until the ban was lifted through an injunction.
- A broad obscenity sting in Orange County, Florida, succeeded to claim Pink Flamingos, among other films.
- Many films made before the Hays Code films were banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Motion Picture Association of America between 1934 and 1968, including the first film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. The ban on these was lifted only after the ratings system supported by then-MPAA leader Jack Valenti came into place, though it would be years before they ever got released Stateside again, mainly due to practicality issues.
- Show Boat - Its 1936 version was banned for many years after star Paul Robeson landed on Red Channels and was issued a travel ban.
- Under Idaho state law, establishments licensed to serve alcohol are prohibited from showing "acts or simulated acts of sexual intercourse" or "any person being touched, caressed or fondled" in their nether region. This law is ostensibly meant to prohibit alcohol at strip clubs, but authorities have threatened that they would enforce this law against cinemas serving alcohol if they receive complaints surrounding films containing such content, with even some R-rated films falling under this restriction. In January 2016, a theater was threatened with its liquor license being revoked for daring to let undercover investigators drink before watching Fifty Shades of Grey, so it decided to challenge the law under the First Amendment. Among other things, it was pointed out that despite the existence of other R-rated films containing sex scenes, the only other film they seemed cracking down on was The Wolf of Wall Street. This, along with cinema chains refusing to screen NC-17 films at all, prevented Blue Is the Warmest Color from being screened almost anywhere in Boise, Idaho.
- Utah had a very similar law, among its many bizarre alcohol-related laws (such as one requiring alcoholic beverages at restaurants to be prepared out of sight, and only given to patrons with an "intent to dine"). This is not surprising, as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, known also as Mormon Church, (which prohibits alcohol consumption by its members) has a high degree of influence in the state. A cinema that received similar threats to the Idaho theater after screening Deadpool also decided to fight the law, and won, striking it down as unconstitutional. The film's star Ryan Reynolds was a major backer of their crowdfunded legal action.
- Until the early 1960s, most films in which white and black Americans shared screen time, or in which one black actor was seen, were subject to censorship in the Southern states (where the Jim Crow laws were still in force at the time). They were usually shown uncut in the rest of the country. Notable examples are:
- The Little Colonel, which had cut the scene where Shirley Temple dances in the stairs with her black butler, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
- Stormy Weather, whose scene of Lena Horne singing the song Stormy Weather was cut from screenings in the South.
- Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives featured a song and dance routine by the Nicholas Brothers (with Dorothy Dandridge joining them in the former), which were set up in order to be easily cut out of the films without affecting the continuity.
- If You Love This Planet - this 1982 documentary short film made by the National Film Board of Canada about a lecture given at SUNY Plattsburgh by Australian anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, was formally declared to be "foreign political propaganda" by the Reagan administration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The US government tried to ban the distribution of the film, requiring all venues to show the film to file paperwork with the Department of Justice. All the notoriety helped to make the film more popular, going on to win the 1982 Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject), with the director thanking the US government for the free advertising in her acceptance speech.
- The Moon is Blue - this film was was the first mainstream film since the enactment of The Hays Code to use the words "virgin" "seduce", "mistress" (in a sexual context), and "pregnant", which were forbidden under the Code. However, it was less the language and more the characters' casual attitude toward sexual topics which roused the ire of Boston censors, which made it banned there.
- Between 2001 and 2004, ABC broadcasted Saving Private Ryan nearly uncut on Veterans Day with a TV-MA rating. However, in 2004, in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction incident and the FCC's shifting stance towards indecent content on broadcast TV, 65 individual ABC affiliates refused to air the film, fearing that the FCC could fine them over its content. Although ABC offered to cover any fines issued to affiliates on their behalf, the FCC ultimately received no complaints. The lobby groups praised ABC's decision to continue airing Saving Private Ryan, because after all, it is a patriotic film. In other words, ABC has never aired the film since and future airings have been relegated to cable where standards are more lenient compared to broadcast TV.
- Showgirls had black bras and panties added to cover the female character's breasts and genitalia during its TV broadcasts, due to the large amounts of nudity present in the uncut film.
- Battle Royale - this Japanese movie series, due to its status of not being released outside Japan, was rumored to be banned in the United States due to the Columbine massacre. While it is not officially banned (as America does not have a censorship board capable of banning films), the original novel and the manga adaptation were both translated and published stateside, squeamishness over the film's subject matter did cause many American distributors to back off from it, fearing a backlash. Reportedly, when Toei screened the film in 2005 for the lawyers of a prospective American distributor, they were warned that they would be jailed for releasing it, creating a series of conditions to dissuade potential distributors and avoid any headaches from American lobby groups (the film was already been controversial enough in its native Japan, with its lack of school shootings due to its years-old gun control laws). An American remake of the film was briefly discussed, but fell into development hell after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. In 2012, when the success of The Hunger Games demonstrated that one could sell a story about teenagers murdering each other following the aftermath of Columbine, Anchor Bay Entertainment got Toei to soften its stance by giving the film an American release.
- missing. - this 1982 film and the book on which it was based went missing in the United States for a couple of decades due to a libel lawsuit over the portrayal of the State Department.
- The Adventures of Mark Twain had its segment based on The Mysterious Stranger has garnered a reputation as a cartoon purportedly banned from TV. As it turns out, many networks that aired the movie simply chose to cut that scene out because they deemed it too creepy for young audiences (similar to what some networks did with the tunnel scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory).
- Ingagi - this pre-Code mockumentary had its distribution suppressed by the Federal Trade Commission due to the misrepresentation of its subject matter. As a matter of fact, it was so greatly infamous that it didn't was released on home video until 2021.
- Song of the South - the film has not been re-released in any form in the U.S. since 1986. Bob Iger stated in 2011 that this film would not receive future distribution in the United States to avoid controversy. In March 2020, Iger told people at a shareholders event that the film would never get a release on Disney+, not even with an added disclaimer at the beginning, as long as he was in charge.
- The Care Bears: Adventure in Wonderland has the reputation of being banned, as American Greetings allegedly refused to allow a Region 1 DVD release over the bad reception of this and the previous film. It did not help that even Nelvana co-founder Michael Hirsh admitted after its release that "It was just one sequel too many."
- Mission to Moscow - Until the 1970s, this film was refused release for television broadcast by United Artists due to of its sympathetic depiction of the USSR (for context, the film was made during World War II, when relations between the US and USSR were much warmer).
All of Conan O'Brien's work for the NBC was withheld from distribution for nearly a decade by the network after a messy screwjob involving the hosting position for The Tonight Show.
- Utah's NBC affiliate, KSL-TV, is owned by Bonneville International, a company controlled by the Mormon Church. As such, the station has a history of being run by censors who pull or pre-empt programs that offend their sensibilities (in most cases, the pre-empted shows were picked up by the local The CW affiliate). Coincidentally, most of the programs KSL has censored ended up being short-runners, but there are exceptions:
- Picket Fences - the series was pulled in 1993 (back when KSL was affiliated to CBS) after an episode involving a Mormon who still believed in polygamy, despite the mainline Latter-day Saints church disavowed the concept in 1890. Polygamy is still a very controversial issue in the Mormon faith. It returned that fall, but was pre-empted to 11:00 p.m. on Saturday nights.
- Coupling: KSL objected to the show's sexual content. This show was ultimately cancelled after four episodes due to poor reception.
- NBC's late-night poker programming was canceled following the U.S. government's indictment and shutdown of the online poker sites which sponsored them, due to the LDS Church being opposed to gambling; as such, there has never been any form of state-sanctioned gambling in Utah (including either lotteries or casinos).
- The Playboy Club: this show was shunned by KSL, as the network did not want to associate itself with Playboy because they (along with other LDS-owned commercial media outlets) participate in an education campaign against porn addiction. It only lasted three episodes due to poor reviews and low viewership. As a result, NBC to dumped it in the hands of the local MyNetworkTV affiliate.
- The New Normal: this show was banned by KSL as it featured two men in a relationship trying to care for a surrogate child and the Mormons, who own the affiliate, are against homosexuality. That said, there was some outcry over KSL's refusal to air it, with many accusing them of homophobia and signing a petition to get them to air it. It didn't last that long anyway.
- Hannibal: This show was pulled after four episodes, "due to the extensive graphic nature of this show. Scott D. Pierce was not amused about this and he went as far as to compare KSL to Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda. This one lasted for three seasons before getting being pulled, the longest of any KSL-censored primetime series.
- Days of Our Lives: This show was punted to the middle of the night in 2011; some say that KSL objected to the show featuring a gay relationship involving the characters of Will Horton and Sonny Kiriakis, who previously became the first gay couple in daytime television to wed onscreen. The reason for KSL putting it in on 1:05am, rather than punt it to their usual dumping ground for shows deemed objectionable by LDS beliefs is unknown.
- Saturday Night Live was not aired by KSL when it switched to NBC, but only because it did not want to pre-empt its popular Saturday night sportscast. SNL began airing on KSL in 2013 after said sportscast was canceled.
- Two other stations known for censoring network programming are WRAL, an NBC affiliate covering the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, and sister Fox station WRAZ. They're more or less run by ultra-religious zealots who are very hostile toward programming they consider to be "anti-family" (which isa side-effect of WRAZ's construction permit having been originally owned by Reverend James Layton, a Christian minster); when affiliated with CBS, they pre-empted one of the Victoria's Secret fashion show specials, and under NBC, also censoring the November 12, 2016 episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Dave Chappelle.
- Reality shows like Temptation Island, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, Married In America, Osbournes Reloaded, and Who's Your Daddy? were either heavily pre-empted or not aired at all on WRAZ. Most of these shows (aside from Temptation Island) were quickly canceled.
- An episode of Once and Again was pulled from broadcast by WSET in Virginia due to containing a lesbian kiss, replacing it with an infomercial. The station provided no official explanation, but a few critics reacted to the decision. Similar to KSL's curse, Once and Again was cancelled literally a month after the lesbian kiss episode aired.
- Masterpiece Theatre - the serial "Private Schulz" was banned for trying to make light of Nazi extermination camps. (However, the only other work to try that, Life Is Beautiful, is not banned at all.)
- The Reagans - this CBS documentary, critical of Ronald Reagan, was intensely criticised from right-wing groups who called it a hit piece. The network bowed to the pressure by deciding not to air it, airing it instead on cable on sister station Showtime.
- Star Trek: The Original Series - the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" in which the white Kirk kisses the black Uhura wasn't shown in several states.
- Nightline - on April 2004, one episode of this show, in which Ted Koppel read the names of soldiers killed in the 2003 Iraq war, was censored by ABC affiliates owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, claiming that it was "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq" (Sinclair is known for being heavily slanted towards the Republican party). Sinclair, however, did not censor the two later episodes of Nightline where Koppel did a reading of soldiers killed in Afghanistan (2004), and both Afghanistan and Iraq (2005).
- The Prisoner - the Western-themed episode "Living in Harmony" was rejected for broadcast in the USA for reasons that remain unclear. Suggestions put forward include:
- That it was an out-of-continuity episode and executives found it incomprehensible.
- That said episode was about pacifism and was considered too controversial during the Vietnam War.
- That the references to the Village's use of hallucinogenic drugs to help create Number Six's illusion of being in a Western setting were too explicit and were against Standards and Practices rules about depiction of drug use.
- That the Western plot, in which Number Six's character kills the Kid in a gunfight, contravened Standards and Practices rules depictiing shootings by having both characters in shot when the gun was fired - supposedly rules at the time stated that such killings could only be depicted by cutting from the killer firing the gun to the victim falling
- Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly - its July 18, 2017 episode was not aired by NBC's Connecticut station WVIT due to it featuring an interview with Alex Jones, who is extremely unpopular in the state for claiming that the Sandy Hook shootings were staged.
- Xena: Warrior Princess - the episode "The Way" was edited after its initial airing due to the threat of a boycott in India. It turned out that the lobby group which protested was an American splinter group from the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, who objected to the depiction on-screen of the god Krishna, among other things, added to their perception of the two leads - Xena and Gabrielle - as lesbians (which was kept deliberately ambiguous by the producers). The only significant change was that a scene in which Xena attacks the monkey god Hanuman was shortened in order that Hanuman immediately restrains Xena instead of passively accepting several blows from her first; which was actually an improvement. A disclaimer was added to the beginning, and a nod to India's history and culture at the end. The splinter group was given a free advertisement during the first rebroadcast; they used it in part to say that they were not mollified. The edited version became now the official version. Meanwhile, in India, where the series also aired, there was no objection to either version as the most popular series in India at the time was a live-action telling of the Ramayana.
- Sesame Street - this show was banned for a month in 1970 by Mississipi's PBS affiliate due to its multiracial cast.
- Many Golden Age cartoons from Warner Bros., Disney, and MGM have been banned from broadcast due to stereotypical racist depictions of minority groups due to changing values. Cartoons of the time were not shy about insensitive portrayals of marginalized groups (particularly black people, Mexicans, Jews, and Asians) which could be incredibly sexist as well. Some of their wartime cartoons could be particularly nasty. Warner Bros. has a collection of cartoons called the Censored Eleven, which have been banned from airing on TV since 1968 mostly due to pervasive black stereotyping. However, most of them have were unofficially released on home video, particularly the ones whose copyright holders didn't bother renewing the copyright. You can also find them online, and some even have legitimate DVD releases.
Some examples of censorship on PBS kids are:
- Arthur - the episode "Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone/The Feud" was banned by the state PBS network in Alabama because of its first short focus on Mr. Ratburn's marriage with another man.
- Postcards from Buster - the episode "Sugartime!", which featured a family which, in Buster's words, had "a lot of moms!", focused on producing maple syrup in Vermont (which was one of the first U.S. states to legalize same-sex marriage, or "civil unions" as they were called at the time). Apart from a short segment which focused on the fact that the children had a mom and stepmom, the couple was not the focus of the episode. However, PBS pulled the episode from the network schedule after the Secretary of Education threatened to pull the federal funding associated with the network, since "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode". WGBH did distribute the episode to individual members who wanted to broadcast it, while some also aired it in primetime, accompanied by discussion of the controversy in a companion show.
- Caillou had seven episodes which were not shown until Cartoonito bought the rights to it:
- "Big Brother Caillou" was banned due to Caillou pinching Rosie. However, this scene was tame compared to the book that the episode was based on, where Caillou gets even more violent and bites Rosie.
- "Caillou Walks Around the Block" was banned as Caillou's mom left him unattended, with Caillou wandering around the neighborhood by himself. In fact, due to the increasing reports of gun violence and child abductions, many neighborhoods in the US became more and more paranoid and discouraging or even outright barring free-range children, and in certain counties parents could be charged of neglect for allowing a child out of the house on his/her own.
- "Caillou is Getting Older" was banned for the subject matter of death, fear of getting older, as well for a dead bird appearing on-screen, after just a couple of broadcasts on PBS early in its run.
- "Caillou's Quarrel" was banned due to Clementine being bossy and Caillou fighting with her.
- "Rosie Bothers Caillou" was banned for a while due to Caillou talking back to his mother, shoving Rosie out of his room and Rosie hitting repeatedly a book against a door (and contrary to what was posted on TV.com, Caillou did not actually hit Rosie with the book, otherwise the episode would not be aired in the first place, as this would be a depiction of domestic violence). The ban would be later rescinded episode was present on the PBS DVD release Caillou's Kitchen in 2018 under the title "Recipe for Fun."
- "Caillou's Crossword" was banned due to the excessive use of the word "stupid", even though its usage was part of the episode's message. Strangely enough, some other preschool shows such as Peppa Pig, Stanley and Franklin got away with the word "stupid." However, those shows only use it once whereas Caillou uses it ten times in one episode, which would probably explain it. While "stupid" is obviously not a curse word, many preschool cartoons treat it as if it was one.
- The Legend of Calamity Jane - this animated "kid's show" heavily hyped by its broadcaster, The WB, which was full of "family un-friendly" violence, such as guns, hangings, people being shot and explicit mentions of death, the Civil War, slavery, barely made to three episodes before the watchdogs made quick work of it. Nonetheless, it was entirely aired on Teletoon, north of the border, as Canada is considerably laxer in censorship guidelines which concern kid's shows than the US.
- Some episodes of Pingu were not aired:
- "Pingu's Lavatory Story", like in the UK, this episode was usually skipped due to depicting urination on-screen, though it is available on Amazon Video.
- "Pingu's Dream" was banned as well, also like in the UK, due to the scary depiction of the walrus in the eponymous dream.
- "Pingu Quarrels With His Mother" is sometimes skipped due to the scene of his mom slapping him. Like "Pingu's Lavatory Story", this episode also airs on Amazon Video.
- "Pingu and the Doll" is banned because Pingu sticks a feather on his head and acts like a sterotypical Native American.
- A number of books were banned in the city of Boston between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s. Naked Lunch was the last major work to get its ban removed.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events - its author, Daniel Handler, was hoping this book was banned and was disappointed in how little it happened. One of his real "victories" was that the books were banned from a school in Georgia due to Olaf's plan to marry his distant relative Violet in book one, to which he responded "I'm at a loss as to how to write a villain who doesn't do villainous things."
- Ulysses - this famous novel written by James Joyce was banned from 1921 to 1933 as one of its chapters contained a passage about a character masturbating. Like the rest of the book, the passage was written as a stream of consciousness and thus rather oblique. However, people thought it was the product of a diseased mind. In 1933, the Supreme Court ruled in the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses case that sexual content in literature is fine as long as it does not promote sexual activity. However, Judge John M. Woolsey's opinion regarding how absurd is censorship (which not many people agreed with at the time) is very well-known.
- Blood and Chocolate - this book was banned from a few high schools in the US, mainly in Texas, mostly due to the sexual content. Annette Curtis Klause even had one mother call her to try and have the book removed from her daughter's school library. Klause recalled finding it strange that what the mother most objected to wasn't the graphic violence present in the story, but teens talking about and engaging in sexual behavior, even if the sexual content is pretty PG-13 and there isn't actually any sex scenes in the book.
- The Second Coming - this a religious satirical comic about Jesus Christ coming back in a superhero universe was cancelled by Vertigo Comics at the last minute due to protests by censorious Christian groups, but the creators announced that Vertigo returned the rights and they still intended to publish it through a different company. It eventually was published by Ahoy Comics.
Certain games have been censored by their developers or publisher in order to get a certain ESRB rating, or in order to make the game more family friendly and less controversial.