At its 150th Anniversary, the Comstock Law is Relevant AgainRoundup
tags: censorship, First Amendment, obscenity, Anthony Comstock, Book Bans
Jonathan Friedman is the director of Free Expression and Education Programs, PEN America. Amy Werbel is the author of Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock.
150 years ago today, President Ulysses S. Grant signed A bill for the suppression of trade in, and circulation of, obscene literature and articles of immoral use.
Better known as the Comstock Act, this was the first federal law to make “obscene” literature illegal with provisions for prosecution. Actively enforced for 100 years, the law granted unprecedented and sweeping powers to government officials to search people’s private mail, to confiscate and destroy published materials and to fine and imprison writers and booksellers, as well as anyone found in possession of material deemed illicit.
Now, this antiquated law and its censorious consequences are becoming increasingly relevant — a cautionary tale in today’s climate of book bans and educational censorship. Across the country, conservative activists are trying in various ways to resurrect it, seeking to suppress anything viewed as “immoral” through the lens of evangelical Christianity.
In state after state, legislative proposals are being advanced to prohibit books on sexuality and gender from being made available in schools or even purchased with public funds. Some states have already passed laws that threaten teachers and librarians with new penalties if they make such books available to students, and at least 12 more are considering similar bills this year. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee (R) has signed a law to ban drag performances on public property or anywhere they could be viewed by minors. In Florida, lawmakers are proposing eliminating gender studies from the college curriculum altogether.
Why is this happening now? Historical parallels are telling.
The winter of 1872-1873, similar to today, was a period of political upheaval and economic uncertainty. The 42nd Congress was embroiled in a scandal involving bribes to Republican legislators who supported government investment in a scam company known as the Crédit Mobilier of America, which paid out investors and politicians with federal dollars. The fallout in part led to the economic “Panic of 1873.”
Evangelical activists, including Anthony Comstock, were happy to help Republican legislators distract Americans from their anger and frustration. Then — as now — they were well placed to help. Associate Justice William Strong helped Comstock draft the language of the bill. From 1868 to 1873, in the same years he served on the United States Supreme Court, Strong also was president of the National Reform Association, which lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for an amendment to the Constitution to include reference to God and Jesus in the preamble.
The language of the Comstock Act, as is the case with similar bills today, was intentionally vague: It permitted the government to prohibit “obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, or immoral” material — but contained no definitions for these terms. Comstock himself was appointed as a special agent of the U.S. Postal Service and was given a free hand to determine what materials were subject to confiscation and prosecution. He used his own religious beliefs to decide on legality.