Up against the First Amendment for goodness' sake

Written in 1789, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that no law shall be made abridging the freedom of speech or the press. Despite its seemingly broad statement, the First Amendment was not a guarantee for completely free speech or press. Exceptions today come in the form of libel and slander laws as well as acts interested in protecting national security.

Concerned citizens have formed organizations determined to suppress the vices of their fellow Americans throughout the country's existence. In the late 19 th Century, groups such as Boston 's Watch and Ward Society and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice focused their aims on a variety of media they deemed obscene. Obscene art and literature, they claimed, put “vile thoughts and suggestions into the minds of the young” and was capable of “sowing the seeds of lust” (Lewis 13). But the youth wasn't their only target for protection. The groups deemed obscene material as harmful to all members of the citizenry, and they moved to push legislature banning it.

Anthony Comstock dedicated his life to leading the crusade against obscenity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He lobbied Congress to make it illegal for people to send or receive articles deemed obscene through the postal service, and served as a special agent of the Post Office responsible for seeking out such material: “By January 1, 1874, he bragged that under the new law [nicknamed the “Comstock laws”] he had seized 194,000 obscene pictures and photographs, 134,000 pounds of books, 14,200 stereo plates, 60,300 rubber articles (no doubt contraceptives…) 5,500 sets of playing cards, 31,150 boxes of pills (mostly ‘aphrodisiacs')” (Ernest, Schwartz 33).

This zeal for scrutiny and confiscation, later dubbed “Comstockery” by George Bernard Shaw, continued after Comstock's death in 1915 under the guidance of John Sumner, the executive secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Sumner led the Society through a period of great success getting books declared obscene and therefore banned in the 1920s, but the group's gains suffered a setback in 1933 from which it would never fully recover. That setback was laid down by Judge John M. Woosley of the Federal Court in New York City . Woosley negated claims that James Joyce's Ulysses was obscene and set forth a precedent upon which books were to be judged as a whole rather than by questionable passages. After that ruling, it became increasingly difficult for obscenity hounds to get literary classics like Bocaccio's Decameron banned from import or sale.