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American censorship

Related: censorship - American erotica - American comics - American horror - American film - American music - 'Lockhart' commission - 'Meese' commission - Anthony Comstock - Ralph Ginzburg - American film ratings 1968 - now, the MPAA - obscenity - pornography - American film censorship 1934 - 1968, the Production Code - Charles Rembar - USA

Report obscene mail to your postmaster

A federal district court at New York July 21 1959 lifts a U.S. Post Office ban on distributing the 1928 D. H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley's Lover despite protests that the book uses such words as fuck and cunt and is explicit in its descriptions of the sex act. Grove Press has distributed an unexpurgated version of the book; Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield has banned it from the mails; and Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan, 55, rules in Grove's favor. His 30-page decision in Roth v. the United States says not only that the book is not obscene but also that the postmaster general is neither qualified nor authorized to judge the obscenity of material to be sent through the mails; he is empowered only to halt delivery of matter already judged obscene.


When compared to Europe, American censorship is much more focused on mediated sex and pornography, and far less on mediated violence. [Oct 2005]

Censorship in the United States

Imagine a list of the 100 greatest erotic movie scenes. I doubt more than a quarter of them would be sex scenes per se. Many would be scenes of kisses and dancing and gorgeous costumes. A few might be entirely symbolic, like Louise Brooks' fatal embrace in PANDORA'S BOX. Some would just be a man or woman lookin' good, like Lana Turner's bouncy sweater-girl promenade in THEY WON'T FORGET or Elizabeth Taylor in her infamous white one-piece in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

If such a list existed I can flat guarantee that all 100 have this in common: no matter when they were made there was social pressure to block, suppress, censor, dilute, discourage or destroy each and every scene on the list. And every scene on that list, no matter how good it may be, is different than it would have been if the creators had been left to do whatever they thought best artistically or commercially. That feels terribly wrong to me.

In many ways America leads the world in freedom of the press. In Canada you can be arrested for denying the holocaust. Britain has a fairly broad state secrets act and libel standard. Many European countries have limitations on racial "hate speech" that a mullah would envy.

America is a great country for people who want to publish political tracts or history, but we have a remarkable history of being backward in all sexual matters. We lead the world in expressive freedoms, provided you don't want to talk about sex.

Being geographically isolated we've always been good at deluding ourselves about our relative virtue. In some ways we were the world's freest nation in 1860, but since we had slavery it's sort of comical to talk about how free we were. We teach our kids that America abolished slavery as part of our whole progressive heritage without mentioning that we were the last western country to do so (except Brazil) and were viewed with some disgust by the entire rest of the civilized world; much the way South Africa was viewed during apartheid. --Chris, Atomic Cinema, http://www.cinebizarre.com/essay_eroticphil.htm [May 2005]

see also: censorship

Obscenity and the first amendment

The federal government and the states have long been permitted to restrict obscene or pornographic speech. The exact definition of obscenity and pornography, however, has changed over time. Justice Potter Stewart famously stated that although he could not define pornography, he "kn[ew] it when [he] s[aw] it." When it decided Rosen v. United States in 1896, the Supreme Court adopted the same obscenity standard as had been articulated in a famous British case, Regina v. Hicklin. The Hicklin standard defined material as obscene if it tended "to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." Thus, the standards of the most sensitive members of the community were the standards for obscenity. In 1957, the Court ruled in Roth v. United States that the Hicklin test was inappropriate. Instead, the Roth test for obscenity was "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest." The Roth test was expanded when the Court decided Miller v. California in 1973. Under the Miller test, a work is obscene if it would be found appealing to the prurient interest by an average person applying contemporary community standards, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and has no serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Note that "community" standards—not national standards—are applied as to whether the material appeals to the prurient interest; thus, material may be deemed obscene in one locality but not in another. Note, however, that national standards are applied as to whether the material is of value. Child pornography is not subject to the Miller test, as the Supreme Court decided in 1982. The Court felt that the government's interest in protecting children from abuse was paramount. Mere possession of obscene material in the home may not be prohibited by law. In writing for the Court in the case of Stanley v. Georgia, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, "if the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man sitting in his own house what books he may read or what films he may watch." It is not, however, unconstitutional for the government to prevent the mailing or sale of obscene items, though they may be viewed only in private. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment#Obscenity

Obscenity trials: Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill

In the United States in the years 1959 through 1966, bans on three books with explicit erotic content were challenged and overturned.

Prior to this time, a patchwork of regulations (as well as local customs and vigilante actions) governed what could and could not be published. For example, it was the U. S. Customs authority that "banned" James Joyce's Ulysses by refusing its importation into the country. The Roman Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum carried great weight among Catholics and amounted to an effective and instant boycott of any book appearing on it. Boston's Watch and Ward Society, a largely Protestant creation inspired by Anthony Comstock, made "banned in Boston" a national by-word.

In 1959, Grove Press published an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence. The U. S. Post Office confiscated copies sent through the mail. Lawyer Charles Rembar sued the New York city postmaster and won in New York and then on federal appeal.

Henry Miller's 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer, had explicit sexual passages and could not be published in the United States; an edition was printed by the Obelisk Press in Paris and copies were smuggled into the United States. (As of 2003, used book dealers asked $7500 and up for copies of this edition.) In 1961, Grove Press issued a copy of the work and lawsuits were brought against dozens of individual booksellers in many states for selling it. The issue was ultimately settled in the by the U. S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Miller v. California. In this decision, the court defined obscenity by what is now called the Miller test. The Wikipedia article on pornography notes that "In the United States, hardcore pornography is legal unless it meets the Miller test of obscenity, which it almost never does."

In 1965, Putnam published John Cleland's 1750 novel Fanny Hill. This was the turning point, because Charles Rembar appealed a restraining order against it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, the court ruled that sex was "a great and mysterious motive force in human life," and that its expression in literature was protected by the First Amendment. Only books primarily appealing to "prurient interest" could be banned. In a famous phrase, the court said that obscenity is "utterly without redeeming social importance"—meaning that, conversely, any work with redeeming social importance was not obscene, even if it contained isolated passages that could "deprave and corrupt" some readers.

This decision was especially significant, because, of the three books mentioned, Fanny Hill has by far the largest measure of content that seems to appeal to prurient interest, and the smallest measures of literary merit and "redeeming social importance." Whereas an expurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover had actually once been published, no expurgated version of Fanny Hill has ever been (and it difficult even to imagine what such a work could possibly consist of).

By permitting the publication of Fanny Hill, the Supreme Court set the bar for any ban so high that Rembar himself called the 1966 decision "the end of obscenity." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_revolution [Oct 2004] see also: Comstock, Hays code

Film censorship USA 1934-1967 [...]

The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was a set of guidelines governing the production of motion pictures. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, originally called the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association) adopted the code in 1930, began effectively enforcing it in 1934, and abandoned it in 1967. The Production Code spelled out what was and was not considered morally acceptable in the production of American motion pictures. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Production_Code, Apr 2004

Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars (1993) - Marjorie Heins

Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars (1993) - Marjorie Heins [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Heins has been on the front lines of the "wars" as director of the Arts Censorship Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She uses many examples to identify the legal themes and strategies of the adversaries, to elucidate the importance of artistic free expression, and to explain why suppression will not solve the problems that beset society. Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or.

With great courage and skill, Marjorie Heins has kept the First Amendment and cultural freedom alive in America today. Her book shows why she deserves a major chapter when the next history of the First Amendment gets written. --Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor, Rutgers University

In 1989 strange things began to happen in these United States. Musicians and music store owners were charged with crimes for singing songs or selling tapes and records. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution condemning a major museum for permitting a display that "encourages disrespect for the flag." The federal arts funding agency was accused of blasphemy for assisting artists whose work dealt with religious themes. And so "censorship" became a key word in political debate. In Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy, the founding director of the ACLU Arts Censorship Project discusses the most hotly contested censorship issues. --Book Description via amazon.com

Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance With Illegal Drugs (1996) - Jill Jonnes

Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance With Illegal Drugs (1996) - Jill Jonnes [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

First sentence:
"In 1821 the obscure and impecunious English writer Thomas De Quincey created a minor sensation with his Confessions of an English Opium Eater..."

Jill Jonnes provides a highly detailed and enormously readable history of American drug use in the 20th century, making the important point that narcotics were a problem long before their naive glorification in the 1960s. Without ever sounding preachy, she calls for re-stigmatizing illegal drugs. "The societal costs of widely available drugs clearly outweigh whatever pleasure and insight they provide to those who can handle them," she concludes. "Just Say No" may have seemed corny, but there was something to it.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly
At the turn of the century, Jonnes estimates, one American in 200 was a drug addict?and most of these were genteel middle-class women taking cocaine or nostrums laced with opiates. This sweeping, highly colorful, riveting narrative resurrects a largely forgotten history of drug use and abuse in the U.S. Jonnes, who researched this topic extensively while completing her Ph.D. in American history from Johns Hopkins, strongly opposes today's illegal drug culture, arguing that marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine and heroin are far more dangerous than alcohol and engender crime, violence, personal tragedy and a culture of irresponsibility and instant gratification. Beginning with Chinese opium dens, patent medicines and early, ostensibly antidrug Hollywood movies portraying druggies as glamorous hedonistic rebels, she moves on to jazz-age Harlem, 1950s Beat hipsters and then to the 1960s counterculture, whose gurus, like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, helped spread drug use to the broad middle class. Her entertaining chronicle includes side trips to 1930s Paris, the N.Y.C. mob underworld, Marseille's Corsican, CIA-abetted drug network of the 1950s and '60s and today's Colombian cocaine cartels. It culminates with a compelling argument against legalization or decriminalization, charging that privileged baby boomers forget the financial and educational advantages that allowed them to emerge from 1960s drug use relatively unscathed. --Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. via Amazon.com

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