Early censorship laws in the United States focused primarily on sexually explicit materials, and legislation in that area was left to the individual states until the middle of the nineteenth century. Massachusetts tried to prohibit the distribution of The Memoirs of Fanny Hill (1748) by John Cleland in 1821. The result was that the book was declared obscene.
In 1842 Congress passed legislation banning the importation of obscene materials into the United States, and during the Civil War, Congress acted further by prohibiting the sending of obscene materials through the mails. Soldiers during the Civil War kept images of naked women made with the then-new photographic technology.
A campaign for strict obscenity laws was launched by Anthony Comstock, resulting in the passage of the federal Comstock Act of 1873, which prohibited the importation or mailing of obscene or lewd material. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually changed the grounds on which a book could be declared obscene, and in 1933 a federal court decision allowing James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to be imported into the United States loosened the hold of censorship laws.
Obscenity law in the United States was molded through the 1957 Supreme Court case Roth v. United States, which established a three-part test for obscenity: The material as a whole must appeal to a prurient interest, it must be offensive on the basis of contemporary community standards, and it must be utterly without redeeming social value. In the 1973 case of Miller v. California it was decided that determination of obscenity would rest with these guidelines: whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient interest, whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Also, it was ruled that local rather than national community standards would apply. The Miller test is applied in determining whether a particular book is obscene and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. In applying the Miller Test, the courts may reach differing decisions on the same book, depending on the geographical location involved in a case.