The dispersion of information is the principle vehicle of political change in the modern world, and consequently, political institutions must adapt to the rapidly changing climate of what has been declared the “Information Age” in human history. Not surprisingly, different governments have adopted varying policies to address these developments, often employing censorship, or the lack thereof, to create a stable political environment. A government’s relationship with censorship policies is perhaps most evident when considering its actions towards traditional print journalism and the rise of Internet technology. While some nations use censorship to suppress political dissidence in order to maintain the status quo, others reject censorship, fostering stability as a byproduct of liberty and the freedom of information. Influenced by their respective political origins in a close, fundamental relationship, the governments of the United States, Iran, and China operate with varying approaches towards policies of censorship, each employing diverse strategies in order to reinforce their political power and maintain stability.
The United States is regarded as one of the most favorable climates for both the press as well as ordinary citizens, a strong tradition grounded in America’s colonial origins. Under British dominion, colonial governments disregarded any notion of freedom of the press, often invoking charges of libel to eradicate any political dissent. One notable example is the case of Andrew Bradford, Philadelphia’s first printer, who was frequently arrested and imprisoned in the early 1700s for questioning the power of local authorities. One warrant for Bradford’s arrest listed his crime as “publishing, uttering, and spreading a malicious and seditious paper, tending to the disturbance of the peace and subversion of the present government.” Such cases were not uncommon in the colonies, and the British exploited their political preeminence to win the majority of these cases, thus upholding their strict censorship policies. In 1734, however, John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel after publishing opinion pieces in The New York Weekly Journal, resulting in a landmark case that defended the freedom of the press. Zenger’s defense, in essence, was that “truth could not be a libel,” as it “fixed the bounds of the right to speak, write, and publish opinions on the conduct of men in power.” Zenger’s acquittal foreshadowed America’s revolutionary stance on the freedom of the press, but British power in the colonies continued to stifle this freedom until the revolution.
In 1787, a constitutional convention sought to establish a strong federal system for the United States, but resistance from anti-federalists ultimately threatened to undermine the process. The anti-federalists believed that the Constitution would not fully protect the rights of American citizens, prompting those in favor of ratification to submit a list of protections against the government that had previously been absent under British rule. In order to prevent further infringements upon the civil liberties of Americans, the newly formed government sent twelve amendments to be approved by the thirteen colonies, of which ten were ratified. The most influential of these amendments, arguably, has been the First Amendment, which stipulates, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” As a direct result, constitutional law explicitly prohibits the broad censorship of the press, a product of the injustice of British rule in addition to the presence of anti-federalist resolve.
Despite the First Amendment, America’s stance on censorship did not fully develop until the twentieth century, when it was defined explicitly by two landmark Supreme Court cases. In 1927, Jay Near published a report in a local Minnesota newspaper which contended that local officials had been involved in criminal activity. Minnesota invoked a statute known as the “gag law,” which authorized the government to issue a prior restraint, or an injunction that could prevent Near from further printing. Near argued that such an injunction infringed upon the freedom of the press, and several years later, the case reached the Supreme Court. In the decision of Near v. Minnesota, the Court traced the origins of the freedom of the press to America’s colonial origins:
The Federal Constitution, has meant, principally, although not exclusively, immunity from previous restraints or censorship. The conception of the liberty of the press in this country had broadened with the exigencies of the colonial period and with the efforts to secure freedom from oppressive administration. That liberty was especially cherished for the immunity it afforded from previous restraint of the publication of censure of public officers and charges of official misconduct.
While the Court fundamentally rejected the notion of prior restraint, it did allow for certain exceptions concerning national security, obscenity, and incitement to violence.
No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government. 
Therefore, with the rejection of the “gag law,” the Court established their position concerning the freedom of the press, which would serve as a useful precedent in future cases. In 1971, the federal government sought to enjoin the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a 2.5 million word document which detailed American involvement in Vietnam. The government claimed that, if exposed, the document would endanger troops in Vietnam and therefore threaten national security, which the decision in Near v. Minnesota had cited as a valid basis for prior restraint. However, in New York Times Co. v. United States, the Court refuted these claims, upholding the freedom of the press once again:
In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.
Following the Court’s ruling in this case, there have been relatively few cases concerning laws that threaten the freedom of the press in American society, a direct result of the judicial branch’s strict support of this civil liberty.
Since the decisions in Near v. Minnesota and New York Times Co. v. United States, the American press has enjoyed nearly uninhibited freedom, which fundamentally legitimizes the democratic system. All governments seek to foster an environment that supports their respective political system, and the United States employs a free press in order to promote its own democracy. Thomas Jefferson once declared, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” Jefferson believed that an informed public is a essential component of a successful democracy, a ideal that American society has placed great reliance on. The existence of a free press forces elected officials to remain accountable for their actions, and ultimately enables voters to make informed decisions concerning critical issues. A key aspect of American exceptionalism is its people’s overwhelming trust in political leaders, the electoral system, and the democratic process, which would be thoroughly undermined if government censorship regulated the dispersion of critical information.
Whereas American revolutionaries were strong proponents of the separation of church and state, the Islamic Revolution encouraged religious authority in Iran, fundamentally impacting Iranian censorship policy by establishing a strong, authoritative political and religious order. In 1941, Mohammed Reza, assumed the throne and accepted the title of “Shah,” or king of Iran. As the Cold War began, the United States and Britain saw the value of strong ties between the west and a strategically located Iran, and consequently began exerting control over the Iranian oil market. Opposition arose, as many Iranians, led by Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, criticized any association with western powers and supported the nationalization of the oil market, which would have thoroughly strengthened Iran’s economy. When Prime Minister Ali Razmara was assassinated, Mossadegh seized power, and for two years, he governed an unstable Iran. In 1953, the CIA organized a coup d’etat and reinstated the Shah, forging intrinsic ties between the regime and the United States. In the 1960s, the Shah, under pressure from American leaders, instituted the so-called White Revolution, in which he extended voting rights to women, allowed non-Muslims to hold office, and ultimately liberalized the country. In response, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the premier political and religious opponent, and gained support after ridiculing a policy that granted immunity to U.S. military forces in Iran.
By the late 1970s, protests spread throughout Iran, as many were enraged by the Shah’s acceptance of secularism and western philosophy. The protesters called for the return of the Ayatollah, who had been exiled from the country but continued to represent the opposition. When the government responded by instituting martial law, the country erupted in chaos, and after continued violence, the Shah fled the country. Khomeini seized control, and with both religious and political backing, established a unitary presidential Islamic republic. Though Iranian leadership has changed over the years, the country remains autocratic, dominant, and centrally controlled by the standing Supreme Leader, or Ayatollah. The relationship between Iran’s political origins and its widespread censorship of information is well defined, as the Islamic revolution was a direct backlash to the Shah’s appreciation for western philosophies of liberalization. The Islamic Republic of Iran has thoroughly repudiated western thought, therefore adopting the view that the dispersion of information is not an asset to citizens, but rather serves as a detriment to the nation.
The current Iranian government relies on the censorship of print journalism to prevent the spread of dissenting opinions, operating violently under the guise of republican government to maintain its power. In order to censor the press, Iran does not seek prior restraints or injunctions of specific articles, but rather imprisons journalists and bars any newspaper from publication, should it contradict the aims of the regime. Akbar Ganji, a Iranian journalist, describes the scenario:
The Iranian government has stifled all dissent. It has shuttered all opposition media outlets. It does not tolerate any independent organizations, even trade unions. If teachers demand back pay, they are dismissed, jailed or exiled. The regime will not accept even nonviolent protest. In order to crush opposition groups with impunity, it brands peaceful, legal activism “soft subversion” or a “velvet revolution.”
Ganji, who was imprisoned for six years and remains exiled, was arrested in 2000 for exposing President Rafsanjani and senior government officials’ involvement in the murders of five writers and dissidents. Other journalists who have protested the Iranian regime have faced similar punishments. After the disputed reelection of President Ahmadinejad, the government strengthened its grip on the media. When a reformist newspaper, Roozegar, published an interview in which the brother of ex-President Mohammed Khatami declared, “Election results are not what they pull out of the ballot box,” the newspaper was suspended. Shargh Daily, the most prominent reformist newspaper in Iran, was barred from publication after a cartoon was published that authorities found disrespectful to Iran-Iraq war veterans.
After President Hassan Rouhani replaced Ahmadinejad, it seemed as though such strict censorship would end. In an interview, Rouhani stated: “We want the people, in their private lives, to be completely free, and in today’s world having access to information and the right of free dialogue, and the right to think freely, is the right of all peoples, including the people of Iran.” A month later, the reformist newspaper Bahar was suspended, and its editor, Saeed Pourazizi, was imprisoned for publishing an article that simply questioned Shi’a beliefs. Aseman, another newspaper, lost its publication license after questioning Iran’s use of capital punishment. Saeed Faghih, another journalist who published articles for several reformist newspapers, was arrested this past March for “security crimes,” after a speech in which he criticized the government. While Iran holds presidential elections every four years, Iran’s political system has not much changed since its inception under Ayatollah Khomeini, continuing to suppress dissent by threatening journalists with imprisonment and suspending reformist publications.
The digital age has forced Iran to expand its use of censorship, as the rise of the Internet has presented a new challenge for authorities in order to prevent the spread of dissenting opinions and controversial subjects. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace dominates the web in Iran, overseeing domains with strict regulations while using the Computer Crimes Law to enforce censorship. This statute requires that Internet service providers block a large range of content, and even criminalizes broad violations of “public morality and chastity” and the “dissemination of lies,” virtually eliminating any form of self expression.  Iran’s relationship with the Internet is clearly exposed by their use of censorship on Wikipedia, one of the most accessed websites in the country. In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, researchers used a proxy server located in Iran to investigate the magnitude of censorship on the website. The study showed that the Supreme Council of Cyberspace focused on blocking two specific areas of content: sexual content and socio-political content. Of the socio-political content, the most commonly blocked subject was the 2009 election of Ahmadinejad, which as mentioned previously, was highly disputed due to concerns of ballot fraud. Many biographies of controversial figures, including “political figures, activists, politicians, government critics, alleged victims of state violence, protesters, and purported prisoners of conscience” were also blocked. Any article concerning state censorship, the shutdown of reformist publications, the imprisonment or murders of journalists, and Evin Prison, Iran’s penitentiary for prisoners of conscience, was unavailable. Finally, the pages of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior conservative leaders were blocked. Often, Wikipedia articles include sections about the controversy associated with political figures, and as a result, these pages were removed. Therefore, by heavily censoring popular websites such as Wikipedia, Iran is able to eliminate information that could be used by political dissidents to criticize the regime.
Iran’s history with social media technology is defined by hypocrisy, as its leaders use popular websites such as Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their personal message, while simultaneously preventing their own citizens from accessing such outlets. For example, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei frequently uses his Twitter feed to post criticisms of the United States: “Do u even know what #HumanRights means?Who turned Afghanistan&Iraq in2 bloodbaths?Who’s been helping oppressive #Zionist regime4 10s of yrs?” Such activity is ironic, considering Iran aggressively blocks access to Twitter, for fear of its potential role in facilitating collective action. Senior administrators’ use of social media websites has inspired some hope for a future of unrestricted social media access, but for now, such sites continue to be blocked. However, many Iranians rely on VPNs, or virtual private networks, to circumvent the harsh censorship of social media websites. VPNs direct signals through foreign servers, and therefore, users are able to access social media and other blocked pages, despite the efforts of the government. It is doubtful that Iran will fully open up Internet technology to the public, so for now, VPNs remain the only hope for Iranian citizens to access twenty-first century digital technology.
Just as the origins of Iranian government are deeply intertwined with western interference in the Cold War era, the transition from imperial China to the single-party state that exists today was catalyzed by foreign influence. In the Sino-Japanese War of the late nineteenth century, China’s Qing empire was defeated by a smaller, yet more powerful Japanese army. When the Boxers, a group of anti-foreign Chinese nationalists, were suppressed at the turn of the century by western powers, it was evident that the power of the Qing dynasty was fading. In response, Sun Yat-sen led a revolutionary movement to undermine the standing imperial system, and successfully established the Republic of China in 1911. Sun joined forces with General Yuan Shikai, a Qing military leader, in order to establish his new republic, but Yuan attempted to subvert the government by building a new imperial dynasty. His efforts were short-lived, however, as Yuan passed away in 1916.The next decade in Chinese politics was characterized by instability, protest, and little influence on the foreign stage. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles disregarded Chinese interests, even awarding the Shandong Province, an important Chinese territory, to Japan. This decision triggered the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which instigated a strong nationalist movement. The movement was initially characterized by mass protests in Tiananmen Square, followed by other demonstrations throughout China. In response, two political organizations formed: Kuomintang, or KMT, led by Sun, and the Chinese Communist Party, or the CCP, which would later be dominated by Mao Zedong. Interactions between these two groups defined the next twenty years in Chinese history.
When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek began to lead KMT, and subsequently led a military coalition to seize Shanghai. Chiang launched an all out assault on the CCP, executing senior leaders, and forcing communist organizations out of the Chinese heartland. Several CCP leaders survived, including Mao Zedong, who promoted guerilla warfare as an effective means of disrupting the KMT’s power. Chiang responded with a military campaign, in which the Red Army, under Mao, retreated in the Long March, during which the communist force was annihilated. When Japan invaded China in 1937 at the advent of World War II, however, the CCP joined forces with KMT to fight off the foreign invasion. While nearly thirty million Chinese died in the ensuing war, the CCP was able to restore its depleted forces, and at the end of the conflict, maintained a strong grip over a number of territories in China. From 1946 to 1949, Chiang and Mao fought for control, and when Mao emerged victorious, he created the People’s Republic of China. 
Twentieth century China was plagued by overwhelming instability, and the ruling Communist Party has responded to such political volatility by utilizing censorship in order to suppress collective action within the modern People’s Republic. Whereas Iran relies on brutal censorship to suppress nearly all political information, China demonstrates a clear willingness to respect the public’s growing desire for more information while still exercising control. China’s constitution does provide for freedom of the speech and of the press, but the inherently vague language provides the government with the loopholes necessary to censor the media. Several governmental bodies regulate the media, including the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD), the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). Moreover, the unique public-private media network of China allows the government owns large percentages of major media as outlets. There are multiple theories of why the Chinese government censors the media, but the theory of “collective action potential” is the most compelling. Following China’s long history of politically disruptive collective action, the government views collective action potential as “collective expression organized outside of government control,” which “equals factionalism and ultimately chaos and disorder. Thus, China censors material with collective action potential, utilizing a three-pronged strategy. First, the “Great Firewall of China” blocks entire websites, such as Facebook and Twitter (RenRen and Sina Weibo are accessible, and virtually identical Chinese versions of these two websites, respectively). Next, China blocks specific keywords in order to prevent users from using inflammatory language. Finally, government administrations censor material, often filtering through content and blocking information by hand.
While the Chinese press enjoys greater freedoms than their Iranian counterparts, the government maintains an active role in dictating news agenda and censoring unfavorable material. It is important to note that China rarely relies on violent means in order to suppress political dissidence; its system of maintaining control over the press is more indirect than that of Iran. Chinese journalists are subjected to “Marxist retraining” programs, in which they are instructed to impact a pro-communist view on current events in their articles. The Chinese government appoints officials to high ranking positions in journalism schools, in order to direct learning in a favorable manner. While Chinese journalists still celebrate the practice of investigative journalism, few of these stories ever reach the headlines. The owners and editors of publications often censor inflammatory articles without intervention, in fear of their publication being directly overseen by the government. Moreover, when journalists resist these norms, they are often fired from their positions. For example, Luo Changping, a prominent journalist at a leading economics magazine in China, commented on the “political smog” hanging over Beijing after accepting an award from the global anti-corruption organization, Transparency International. Subsequently, Luo was discredited and was removed from his position at the magazine. Ultimately, China does not censor the press’s ability to report on political topics, but rather censors any stories that it deems provocative, in order to prevent the spread of collective action.
As previously mentioned, while China explicitly blocks Facebook and Twitter, virtually identical social media sites are very popular in the People’s Republic as well as personal blogs, presenting a new medium to which the government has directed censorship efforts. Approximately 13% of all social media posts are censored, which, considering China is a nation of over 600 million Internet users, represents a massive number. The theory of collective action potential dominates Internet censorship, as the government’s primary concern is the inflammatory implications of the spread of certain information, as opposed to a concern about the information itself. When China censors the press, it identifies potentially dangerous articles to eliminate from circulation, but this process is somewhat arbitrary. The beauty of the Internet, however, is that extensive activity concerning a specific subject is very easy to recognize. Therefore, the government has an easier time identifying items with collective action potential. In analyzing the government’s reaction to subjects that presented the danger of collective action, it is evident that the CCP employs strict censorship once a topic becomes increasingly popular on social media (see Figure 1). In essence, Chinese censorship is fueled by this simple ideal: freedom of speech is permissible, as long as such speech does not have the potential to inspire collective action against the government.
While the United States, Iran, and China all operate under vastly different political systems, each nation has formulated a clear relationship to censorship policy, decisively impacted by their individual revolutionary origins. In the United States, the First Amendment has been used to protect the rights of both individuals as well as the press to express opinions, both concurring and dissenting. Even so, this freedom was not ultimately guaranteed until the Supreme Court’s rulings in Near v. Minnesota and New York Times Co. v. United States. The American Revolution was predicated upon the ideals of liberty and freedom, consequently resulting in the adoption of libertarian values of uninhibited expression. Conversely, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was a rejection of western philosophy, installing a theocratic system with supreme religious and political influence. In order to maintain the status quo, Iranian leaders have censored both social media and the press, two methods of dispersing information that are regarded as particularly western by origin. Whereas the American government’s power is validated by the people’s ability to dissent if necessary, Iran relies on a climate of limited political inquiry to maintain its authority. China, on the other hand, is tolerant of political speech, provided that such speech does not threaten the Communist Party’s authority by inciting collective action. Iran often uses violent means in order to enforce their censorship policy, but China’s relationship with the press is far more intricate. By installing key government officials in newspapers, which are often partially owned by the state, the CCP can regulate the flow of information. Unlike Iran, which has barred citizens from utilizing social media websites, China affords its citizens the benefits of twenty-first century technology while limiting its power to facilitate collective action. Therefore, the Communist Party is able to appease citizens’ thirst for available technologies while thwarting the political instability characteristic of twentieth century China. Whether or not a nation employs censorship, or the lack thereof, to achieve stability and peace, such policy decisions are not arbitrary; they instead are a clear response to history, to society, and to the political origins that ultimately define the establishment of the state.
Leonard W. Levy, Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History: Legacy of Suppression, New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pg. 25-26.
Murray Dry, “The Constitutional Thought of the Anti-Federalists.” Middlebury College, accessed April 19, 2014. https://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/ConstThoughtAntifederalists.pdf
Edd Applegate, “Freedom of the Press,” Public Relations Quarterly 52, no.1 (2008), pg. 2.
Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).
New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971).
 Caroline Little, “Democracy Depends on a Free Press,” Miami Herald, Sept. 16, 2009. accessed April 20, 2014. http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/16/3631212/democracy-depends-on-a-freepress.html
 Akbar Husain, The Revolution in Iran, Vero Beach: Rourke Publishing, 1988, pg. 18.
 Ibid, 20-21.
 Ibid, 22.
 Ibid, 24-25.
 Ibid, 31-35.
Akbar Ganji, “Tehran’s Double Standard; Iran Funds Political Activism in Other Countries. At Home, Though, Repression Reigns,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 12, 2007. accessed April 11, 2014. http://articles.latimes.com/2007/nov/12/opinion/oe-ganji12.
 “Biography: Akbar Ganji,” Cato.org, accessed April 20, 2014.
 “Iranian Press Freedoms Grow for Still-Wary Journalists,” The Guardian, Nov. 30, 2013, accessed April 11, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/30/iran-new-press-freedoms.
 F. Brinley Bruton. “EXLUSIVE: Iran president blames Israel for ‘instability,’ calls for peace.” NBCNews.com, Sept. 19, 2013, accessed April 20, 2014. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/exclusive-iran-president-blames-israelinstability-calls-peace-f4B11197592.
 “Iranian Press Freedoms Grow for Still-Wary Journalists.”
 Nima Nazeri and Collin Anderson, “Citation Filtered: Iran’s Censorship of Wikipedia,” University of Pennsylvania, accessed April 1, 2014, pg. 2. http://www.global.asc.upenn.edu/fileLibrary/PDFs/CItation_Filtered_Wikipedia_Report_11_5_2013-2.pdf
 “The Islamic Republic Of Iran: Computer Crimes Law (2012),” Article19.org, accessed April 21, 2014, pg. 3. http://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/2921/12-01-30-FINAL-iranWEB%5B4%5D.pdf
“Citation Filtered: Iran’s Censorship of Wikipedia,” pg. 5.
 Ibid, pg. 8.
 Ibid, pg. 10.
 Ali Khamenei, Twitter post, April 19, 2014, 3:44 A.M. https://twitter.com/khamenei_ir
 Saeed Kamali Dehghan. “Iranian ministers embrace social media despite ban,” The Guardian, Sept. 9, 2013, accessed April 21, 2014.
 Jamillah Knowles. “The current state of Internet access from inside Iran,” TheNextWeb.com, March 23, 2012, accessed April 21, 2014.
Guoli Liu, Politics and Government in China, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Publishing, 2011, pg. 4-5.
 R. Keith Schoppa, Twentieth Century China: A History in Documents, New York:
Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011, pg. 45-46.
 Politics and Government in China, pg. 5-6.
 Ibid, pg. 7.
 Ibid, pg. 10-13.
 Beina Xu, “Media Censorship in China,” CFR.org, accessed April 2, 2014.
 Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 2 (May): 2.
 Ibid, pg. 3.
 Denyer, Simon, “Chinese Journalists Face Tighter Censorship, Marxist Retraining,” WashingtonPost.com, Jan. 10, 2014, accessed March 29, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-journalists-face-tighter-censorship-marxist-re-training/2014/01/10/6cd43f62-6893-11e3-8b5b-a77187b716a3_story.html
 Ibid, pg. 6.
 Ibid, pg. 7-10.