Later sedition acts focused primarily on punishing those who advocated civil disobedience. The Sedition Act of 1918, for example, targeted draft resisters.
The book holds the record for being banned longer than any other literary work in the United States–prohibited in 1821, and not legally published until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban in Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966). Of course, once it was legal it lost much of its appeal; by 1966 standards, nothing written in 1748 was liable to shock anybody.
In 1872, feminist Victoria Woodhull published an account of an affair between a celebrity evangelical minister and one of his parishioners. Comstock, who despised feminists, requested a copy of the book under a fake name, then reported Woodhull and had her arrested on obscenity charges.
He soon became head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, where he successfully campaigned for a 1873 federal obscenity law, commonly referred to as the Comstock Act, that allowed warrantless searches of the mail for “obscene” materials.
Comstock later boasted that during his career as censor, his work led to the suicides of 15 alleged “smut-peddlers.”
The Code, which regulated the industry from 1930 until 1968, banned what you might expect it to ban–violence, sex, profanity–but also prohibited portrayals of interracial or same-sex relationships, as well as any content that was deemed anti-religious or anti-Christian.
The driving force behind the CCA was the fear that violent, dirty, or otherwise questionable comics might turn children into juvenile delinquents–the central thesis of Frederic Wertham’s 1954 bestseller Seduction of the Innocent (which also argued, less credibly, that the Batman-Robin relationship might turn children gay).
Lawrence’s odd story about an adulterous affair between Constance Chatterley and her husband’s servant was so offensive because at the time, non-tragic portrayals of adultery were, for practical purposes, nonexistent–the Hays Code banned them from films, and federal censors banned them from print media.
A 1959 federal obscenity trial lifted the ban on the book, now recognized as a classic.
1971: The New York Times Takes on the Pentagon–and Wins
In June 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Times could legally publish the Papers.
- the average person must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
- the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law; and
- the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
While the Supreme Court has held since 1897 that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, the relatively small number of obscenity prosecutions in recent years suggests otherwise.
The station challenged the reprimand, ultimately leading to the Supreme Court’s landmark FCC v. Pacifica (1978) in which the Court held that material that is “indecent,” but not necessarily obscene, may be regulated by the FCC if it is distributed through publicly-owned wavelengths.
Indecency, as defined by the FCC, refers to “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”
uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.
The Supreme Court mercifully struck the Act down in ACLU v. Reno (1997), but the concept of the bill was revived with the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998, which criminalized any content deemed “harmful to minors.” Courts immediately blocked COPA, which was formally struck down in 2009.
During the live-broadcast Super Bowl halftime show on February 1st, 2004, Janet Jackson’s right breast was exposed (sort of) and the FCC responded to an organized campaign by enforcing indecency standards more aggressively than it ever had before. Soon every expletive uttered at an awards show, every bit of nudity (even pixellated nudity) on reality television, and every other potentially offensive act became a possible target of FCC scrutiny.
Head, Tom. “History of Censorship in the United States – An Illustrated History of United States Censorship.” Civil Liberties at About.com – Your Guide to Civil Liberties News and Issues. Web. 17 Sept. 2010. <http://civilliberty.about.com/od/freespeech/tp/History-of-Censorship.htm>.
- What, Me Worry? (neatorama.com)
- Library of Congress Opens Records of Anti-Comic Book Shrink (news.slashdot.org)
- How Stan Lee Defied the Censors and Made Comic Book History (neatorama.com)
- Library of Congress Takes to the Road, Bringing Rolling Exhibition to the Heartland (prweb.com)
- Supreme Court – Not What You Think: The Early Years (themoderatevoice.com)
- The Spark: Thomas Jefferson — and John Adams — Survive (dir.yahoo.com)
- The Founder’s Footprints (avc.com)