A Brief Timeline of Censorship and Obscenity Laws in the US

Timeline of Censorship and Obscenity Laws in the US

1821 – the 1749 British erotica novel, Fanny Hill, was outlawed in the US and its publisher, Peter Holmes, was imprisoned for “corrupt[ing] the citizens of Massachusetts.”

1868 – The Hicklin Test was developed in England, supplying a broad definition of obscenity, based on ascertaining “whether the tendency of the matter is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”

1873 – The US adopted the Hicklin Test when it passed The Comstock Act (also known as the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act), which made it a crime to distribute obscene material through the post. It also prohibited the use of the mail for distribution of birth control devices and information.

1894 – The short film Carmencita was banned because it featured a dancing woman who tugged at the hem of her skirt and allowed her crinolines to be visible.

1896 – The first on screen kiss sparked outrage, resulting in the movie being banned in many places.

1916 – Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was arrested for publishing and distributing pamphlets about birth control, prohibited under the Comstock Act.

1918 – Part of James Joyce’s serialized novel Ulysses was published in an American magazine. The US Postal service seized and burned all copies of the publication. Ulysses was banned in the US before it was even published as a novel, and remained banned for a decade.

1920s – On the basis of The Comstock Act, books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover (DH Lawrence), An American Tragedy (Theodore Drieser), and Ulysses (James Joyce) were banned in the US.

1933 – In The US v One Book Entitled Ulysses, the ban on James Joyce’s novel was lifted. Judge John Woolsey said: “While in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”

1957 – in Roth v United States, the Hicklin Test was deemed inappropriate and the new Roth Test was adopted, stating: “Whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.”

1966 – in a court ruling on the novel Fanny Hill, the court declared that for a work to be pornographic it must be “utterly without redeeming social value.”

1967 – The American Library Association established the Office for Intellectual Freedom, to “educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries.”

1973 – in Miller v California, the three part Miller Test was established:

1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests (i.e., an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion);
2. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way (i.e., ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated, masturbation, excretory functions, lewd exhibition of the genitals, or sado-masochistic sexual abuse); and
3. Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Any material that satisfies this three-pronged test may be found obscene.

1974 – TIME Magazine predicted “The national mood could be pointing to an uncensored future…in which consenting adults will be free to decide for themselves what they will read and see.”

1980s – feminist groups campaigned against pornography because “in their view, it degraded women, violated their human rights, and encouraged sex crimes.” Any regulations passed due to their efforts were struck down in the 90s.

1982 – The American Library Association (ALA) launched the first Banned Books Week, and expanded the definition of “banned books” to include books in schools that have been challenged by parents for content concerns, prompting consideration for removal.

1996 – the Communications Decency Act prohibited the transmission of sexually obscene materials and messages to recipients under the age of 18, especially in regards to internet communication.

1997 – the Communications Decency Act was overturned in Reno v American Civil Liberties Union, after the ACLU and the ALA attacked it for limiting freedom of expression. The court ruled the CDA to be unconstitutionally overbroad because it suppressed a significant amount of protected adult speech in the effort to protect minors from potentially harmful speech.

2000s – increased sexual permissiveness in the culture has led to minimal enforcement of existing obscenity laws. Most cases concerning obscenity are now centered around restriction of child pornography. The ALA claims that we are living in a time with unprecedented censorship, because parents are challenging more books in children’s schools that we’ve ever seen before. The vast majority of these books include sexually explicit content.


In response to the over-censorious sensibilities of Victorians, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Modern culture has become p*rnified; sex is glorified. Everything goes. Nothing is taboo anymore.

What is most interesting to me is that the talk of censorship and book banning now focuses almost exclusively on books for children. In the early 1900s, obscene materials were being banned by the government, restricted for everyone to access. Now, adults are able to access whatever they want, but should children have the same sort of access? I often find myself wondering how some adults and parents can be okay with children being exposed to sexually explicit materials in schools. They justify it by saying, “They’re already talking about sex anyway.”

The answer to my queries, I’ve realized, is right here in this timeline. We have become so desensitized to obscenity that it’s now second nature. Our culture has not only allowed obscenity, but embraced it as a virtue; all the while making purity out to be a vice. The last frontier to conquer, apparently, is childhood. Because obscenity is no longer taboo, modern adults have lost the ability to reason against it in regards to a younger audience.

I don’t think the answer is to revert back to Victorian mores. But I do think there is merit in making obscenity taboo. Let steamy books be a “dirty little secret” again, something we do not talk about or condone in public. As a Christian, of course, my recommendation is to avoid smut outright – but we cannot expect a secular culture to conform to Christian standards. However, if we want to live in a decent culture, one that is preoccupied with virtuous living rather than sex; one that is interested in protecting and uplifting the innocence of childhood – then we will, at the very least, make smut taboo again.

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