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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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