Performative censorship: Why some free speech conflicts should be taken seriously but not literally

Cherian George*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


In some speech-related disputes, censors do not gauge their success by whether the challenged cultural product or practice has been suppressed in accordance with their explicit demands. This article proposes a theory of performative censorship that can help explain this paradox. Building on the concepts of expressive laws and symbolic crusades from legal studies and social movement studies respectively, performative censorship disputes are defined as contentious episodes in which demands for or against speech regulation are expressed partly for the broader objective of gaining recognition for a group’s way of life, dignity or status. Case studies of two highly contentious conflicts are offered: over Confederate statues in the United States and cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. The case studies show that movements’ goals and tactics are neither uniform nor static, making them more complex but also presenting opportunities for de-escalation.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalMedia, Culture and Society
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Nov 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science

User-Defined Keywords

  • censorship
  • culture wars
  • freedom of expression
  • polarization
  • social movements


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