History of censorship in America

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December 5, 2020
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History of censorship in America

America prides itself in valuing the freedom of speech, but the country has a long history of bruising fights to protect and uphold that right as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Starting with the Founding Fathers in the 18th century, free speech was put to the test when President John Adams restricted the right to criticize a government official.

Stacker has compiled a look at key moments and milestones in the history of censorship in America, consulting academic papers, historical accounts, legal cases, industry records, and news reports.

Many attempts at limiting free speech in the United States have come during times of war. Criticism was sharply curtailed during World War I, when vocal opponents to U.S. policy were jailed and deported. Not long before that, newspaper editors and reporters were arrested in the North for opposing the Civil War, and reports from the front were heavily censored. In World War II, newspapers were complicit in protecting U.S. interests and suppressing public information.

But it has been sex that has sparked the most passionate arguments over the limits of free speech, whether it is in explicit novels, graphic pornography, classic Greek plays, Shakespeare, poetry, or just the culture’s puritanical tendencies.

Movies and comic books have adopted systems to censor themselves as means of averting full-fledged censorship by authorities. Comic book stories were accused of sending risqué messages to children, and even the cartoon character Betty Boop started wearing longer skirts to avoid criticism.

Still today, schools across the country grapple with keeping books on their library shelves and in classroom curriculum over seemingly incessant objections that they are profanity-riddled or obscene and inappropriate. Throughout the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn the lines around just what merits protection as free speech—lines that have shifted considerably over the years.

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1722: Benjamin Franklin caught up in brother’s censorship

In 1722, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, James, printer of “The New-England Courant,” was jailed for several weeks for publishing criticism of the government, and the younger Franklin, then 16, was named publisher for the extent of the jail term. James Franklin ran afoul of the authorities again in 1723, went into hiding, and published under his younger brother’s name again.

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1798: Criticism of US government officials made illegal

Under President John Adams in 1798, it was made illegal to criticize a government official unless the claims could be backed up in court. More than two dozen people were arrested under the statute, but they were pardoned by incoming President Thomas Jefferson two years later.

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1821: Fictionalized memoirs of a prostitute are banned

The novel “Fanny Hill,” a fictionalized account of a prostitute’s memoirs, was written in 1748 and banned in 1821. The prohibition was not overturned until a Supreme Court decision in 1966—nearly a century and a half later.

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1846: Abolitionist newspaper put out of business

Antislavery crusader Cassius Clay founded a newspaper, “The True American,” in Kentucky to promote his abolitionist views. A pro-Confederate mob called the Committee of Sixty broke into the newspaper and stole its equipment, including its presses. The paper went out of business a year later, in 1846.

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1861: Reporters, editors arrested during Civil War

During the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, newspaper reporters and editors were arrested in the Union if they wrote about opposing the draft or discouraged enlisting in the army. Some were detained, and others were sent to the Confederacy. Telegraph dispatches from reporters at battlefield scenes were censored as well.

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1863: Anti-Civil War speaker sent South

In 1863, former Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham gave a speech critical of President Abraham Lincoln and called for a peaceful end to the Civil War. Vallandigham was arrested and found guilty of disloyalty and sympathy for the enemy by a military tribunal. He was imprisoned, then banished to the Confederacy.

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1873: Comstock Act permitted searches of mail

In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act, named after its main supporter, Anthony Comstock, a devout Christian and head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The Comstock Act permitted searches of the mail, without legal warrants, for obscene material. It included contraceptives as obscene.

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1903: US laws targeted immigrant freedom of speech

The 1903 Immigration Act barred entry into the United States of anarchists. The law suppressing immigrants’ political views followed the 1901 assassintion of President William McKinley by an accused anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. The reach of immigration laws expanded over the next decades, leading to the Cold War McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 that banned entry and allowed for deportation of immigrants whose views were deemed to be subversive.

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1915: Ohio film censored win in Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court decided in its Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruling of 1915 that movies were not protected as free speech under the First Amendment. The Mutual Film Corp., which leased and sold films, had sued the Ohio censorship board that claimed the right to review and approve films. The court ruled against the film company, deciding that the state’s law was not unconstitutional.

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1918: Sedition Act used to quell World War I opposition

The Sedition Act of 1918 limited the rights to free speech during war, making it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States.” President Woodrow Wilson supported it to tamp down opposition to World War I and the draft. The act targeted resisters, pacifists, socialists, and anarchists, and more than a thousand cases filed by the government resulted in convictions before it was repealed in 1920.

[Pictured: Boston police with a haul of "subversive" literature, confiscated during the post-war red scare in 1919, which they are preparing to load into a police ambulance.]

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1919: Anarchist Emma Goldman deported

Anarchist Emma Goldman was deported in 1919 after a series of legal battles over her political views, lectures and speeches advocating for women’s rights, union rights, and freedom of speech and opposing the military draft. She moved to the Soviet Union and then not long afterward to Great Britain.

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1920: American Civil Liberties Union was born

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920. Its creation followed a series of raids, on orders of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, that rounded up and deported thousands of people on grounds that they were radicals. The ACLU declared its interest in protecting rights under the U.S. Constitution, including freedom of speech and press.

[Pictured: Jane Addams (1860 - 1935), internationally known social worker and author, writes at her desk. Addams established the social settlement, Hull House, in Chicago in 1889 and founded the American Civil Liberties Union, circa 1925.]

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1920: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ banned as obscene

The New York publishers of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” were convicted under the anti-obscenity Comstock Act in 1920, fined, and ordered to stop publication of the complex novel over its sexual content. The ruling fueled interest in the book by the Irish writer, which was published two years later in Paris. Random House won the right to publish it in a U.S. federal court ruling in 1934.

[Pictured: Author of Ulysses James Joyce and his publisher Sylvia Beach in an office in Paris.]

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1929: Hemingway’s books challenged, repeatedly

In 1929, Scribner’s Magazine was banned in Boston for running Ernerst Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” on grounds that it was too sexual. Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” was banned in Boston a year later, and, in 1941, the U.S. Post Office decided his “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was pro-Communist and could not be shipped in the mail.

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1930: Movie industry adopted self-censoring Hays Code

The film industry in 1930 adopted the Hays Code, calling for movies to be “wholesome” and “moral” as a means of self-policing to avoid outright government censorship. The production code banned lustful kissing, suggestive dancing, nudity. Movies could not mock religion, depict illegal drug use, show interracial romance, or even portray detailed crimes that could be imitated. The Code held sway for decades, but its effectiveness declined after World War II, with family-oriented competition from television and more scintillating foreign films.

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1920: ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ lost in US Senate

“Lady Chatterley's Lover” by English author D.H. Lawrence aroused the wrath of U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot, who denounced it in a 1930 speech when the Senate was considering loosening restrictions of book imports under the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act. The Republican senator from Utah won his battle after threatening to read obscene passages from the book on the floor of the Senate. The ban was lifted in a federal obscenity trial in 1959.

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1941: War Powers Act established Censorship Office

During World War II, as part of the 1941 War Powers Act, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Censorship, which issued guidelines for the media to determine for itself if the information being published would be valuable to the enemy. Under the voluntary censorship, newspapers did not publish photographs of dead U.S. troops, kept secret information about plans to drop the atom bomb, and did not write about the president’s ill health. The mail was read and censored as well.

 

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1946: Supreme Court ruling ends postal censorship

In the early 1940s, the U.S. Post Office denied less costly second-class postage privileges to Esquire magazine. The Postmaster General had decided postage rates could be determined by whether a publication contributed to the “public good” and found that the magazine’s jokes and pinups failed the test. A unanimous 1946 Supreme Court decision put an end to the postal censorship and, with the ruling, extended the protection of free speech beyond political to popular speech.

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1952: Supreme Court, in reversal, protected movies

In 1952, a legal ruling on a film “The Miracle,” written by Roberto Rossellini and directed by Federico Fellini, ended decades of U.S. censorship. The film had been denounced by the Catholic Church as sacrilegious, prompting New York authorities to rescind its license, and the film’s distributor took the case to court. The Supreme Court decided movies were protected under the First Amendment, reversing its 1915 opinion that did not grant them such protection.

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1954: Comic books policed for gay, violent messages

Comic books were the focus of censorship arguments over whether they exerted a dangerous influence on children. Publishers in 1954 created the Comics Magazine Association of America and a Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval that policed the use of horror, crime, sex, and violence. The code was heavily influenced by the book “Seduction of the Innocent,” by German psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who found a gay subtext in the stories of Batman and Robin and claimed Wonder Woman was a lesbian.

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1955: Post office found classical Greek play obscene

The U.S. Post Office in 1955 seized a rare volume of “Lysistrata,” a Greek play written by Aristophanes about women withholding sex to force men to end war. The postmaster general said it was obscene and lewd. After a battle led by famed First Amendment attorney Edward De Grazia, the post office backed off before a trial was held.

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1955: Elvis Presley’s moves, music censored

Florida police in 1955 threatened to arrest Elvis Presley if he did not stand still while performing, and two years later, his performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was filmed from the waist up due to opposition over his suggestive moves. In 1960, his songs were among those banned from radio stations that were refusing to play music considered to be sexually explicit.

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1957: Roth court case set new obscenity standard

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1957 set out a new obscenity test with the case of Samuel Roth, a bookseller in New York accused of sending obscene circulars and an obscene book through the U.S. mail. The standard set out under Roth v. United States was whether “the average person,” applying community standards, would find the entire work obscene.

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1963: Comic Lenny Bruce convicted of obscenity

Comic Lenny Bruce was arrested on stage and convicted in 1963 of obscenity in Chicago. The following year, he was arrested in New York for violating an obscenity law. He was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail, but he remained free on bail and died of a drug overdose in 1966, at 40.

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1964: Supreme Court ruled in favor of ‘Tropic of Cancer’

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 ruled in favor of publication of the sexually explicit novel “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller. The court decision found that the book merited First Amendment protection because it had some redeeming social value, making a distinction from obscenity that was “utterly without redeeming social value.”

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1965: Ban on ‘The Naked Lunch’ lifted

A legal ruling in 1965 overturned a ban on William S. Burroughs’ explicit book “The Naked Lunch” after writers like Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg testified to its artistic merit. It was the final work of fiction censored by the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Customs Service.

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1968: Movies implemented ratings system to end censorship code

The Motion Picture Association of America in 1968 instituted a film ratings system. It brought an end to the Hays Code, a voluntary list of 11 “Don’ts” and 25 “Be Carefuls” that the industry had implemented in 1930 to avert outright censorship. The ratings system has undergone a few changes, and today the ratings are G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, and UR.

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1969: Smothers Brothers lost show in censorship fight with CBS

Tom and Dick Smothers lost their show, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” after a protracted censorship battle with CBS over their anti-establishment and anti-war jokes and commentary. Network censors would screen and edit the show and censor or delete performances such as an anti-war song performed by Pete Seeger. Tom Smothers asked the Federal Communications Commission and members of Congress to intervene to no avail, and CBS canceled the show in 1969 after three years.

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1971: With Spider-Man, comics lifted censorship web

The Spider-Man publication of stories involving drug abuse triggered a battle with the Comics Code Authority, which was eased in 1971 as a result. The revised code loosened restrictions on horror and crime comics, sexual content, and drug use. But only a handful of major publishers were still involved, and the code had lost its clout.

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1971: Publication of Pentagon papers triggered censorship effort

The New York Times in 1971 published leaked excerpts of the Pentagon papers, a military study that revealed U.S. efforts to extend and escalate the Vietnam War, causing a political uproar. Federal prosecutors tried to block any further publication. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing the newspaper to publish the incendiary documents.

[Pictured: Ellsberg Arrives at Court. Los Angeles: Daniel Ellsberg talks with newsmen as he arrives for arraignment at courthouse here. Ellsberg is charged with violating the law by leaking the secret Pentagon papers to the news media on August 16, 1971.]

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1973: ‘Seven Dirty Words’ aired in New York

In 1973, a New York radio station aired the “Seven Dirty Words” routine by comedian George Carlin, prompting a battle with the Federal Communications Commission. Five years later, in FCC v. Pacifica, the Supreme Court allowed that “indecent” material could be regulated by the government if it were being distributed on public wavelengths. It said indecency included offensive language or material describing or depicting “sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

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1973: Supreme Court designed test for obscenity

The Supreme Court in 1973, in Miller v. California, upheld the conviction of a publisher convicted under obscenity laws of sending advertisements for books about sex through the mail. Chief Justice Warren Burger laid out a three-pronged test still applied today—whether the average person, applying community standards, would find the whole work appeals to prurient interests; whether it describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and whether it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

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1973: Utah bookseller arrested for book sales

In 1973, a bookseller in Orem, Utah, was arrested for selling “A Clockwork Orange” and two other books that were determined to be obscene. Opponents of the 1962 novel objected to author Anthony Burgess’ depiction of sexual violence. The bookseller was fined, but while the charges were later dropped, she closed her store and moved away.

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1978: Pornographer shot while battling obscenity charges

Larry Flynt, publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler, who waged legal battles testing the right of free speech, was shot and seriously wounded in 1978 while fighting obscenity charges in Georgia. In 1983, he ran a parody advertisement insulting the virtues of Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, and the right-wing leader sued. In 1987, the Supreme Court backed Flynt’s right to satirize a public figure.

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1997: Courts strike down bans on online content

In 1996, the Communications Decency Act banned online computer use to suggest or communicate sexual content to minors. It was struck down in 1997 by the Supreme Court in ACLU v. Reno, revived in the Child Online Protection Act in 1998, and struck down again by the courts in 2004 and in 2009.

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1999: Georgia school banned, reinstated book

In Savannah, Georgia, the 1966 book “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote was banned from a high school advanced placement English class, but was reinstated in 2000 following protests. A parent in 1999 complained that the book, which tells the story of a 1959 murder in Kansas by two drifters, contained sex, violence, and profanity.

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2003: Lenny Bruce is pardoned in New York

In 2003, comic Lenny Bruce received a posthumous pardon in New York for his 1964 obscenity conviction. The pardon came after a free speech campaign that included leading comics such as Robin Williams and entertainers Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller. New York’s Gov. George Pataki called it “a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

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2004: Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction sparked indecency complaints

The well-known wardrobe malfunction—when the television public got a brief glimpse of performer Janet Jackson’s star-studded nipple during the 2004 Super Bowl live halftime show—prompted complaints to the Federal Communications Commission over public indecency standards. The FCC fined CBS $550,000, but the Supreme Court refused to uphold the fine in a 2012 ruling.

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2004: Alabama lawmaker proposed ban on books promoting homosexuality

Alabama State Rep. Gerald Allen proposed a bill in 2004 to forbid the use of state funds to buy any books that “promote homosexuality.” Opponents said his proposal, which failed to become law, could include “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Color Purple,” poetry by Walt Whitman, a school performance of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and even Shakespeare’s plays.

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2020: Most Americans suspect social media practices censorship

A study earlier this year found most Americans—about 75%—believe it is likely that social media sites censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable. The view was particularly strong among Republicans, according to the research by the Pew Research Center.

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