Censorship is as old as speech. Censorship of literature is as old as literature. The sixteenth century, for example, witnessed battles between the papacy and Martin Luther, resulting in a split in the Christian church and the establishment of the Catholic Index librorum prohibitorum (1559), a list of prohibited books.
In the seventeenth century, censorship battles in England surrounded the Licensing Act of 1643, which forbade the printing or sale of any book without prior official approval. The following year, John Milton published Areopagitica, an eloquent and famous attack on censorship. Resistance to the law brought its end in 1695. Still, theatrical performance, for example, was not allowed in public without prior permission of the Lord Chamberlain. This law remained in effect until 1966.
In the nineteenth century, in England, Canada, and the United States, a repressive ideology, proclaiming the need for propriety, prudence, and sexual restraint, made itself felt among editors, publishers, librarians, and even writers, who felt a moral obligation to eliminate disagreeable or realistic portrayals of life. Novelists as scandalous as Jane Austen were censored in American editions. A federal statute was passed in 1842 in an attempt to limit the importation of “French” postcards. This law was broadened in 1865, when Congress passed a law to bar obscene materials from the mail. In 1857, Great Britain passed the Obscene Publications Act, which established official prohibition of purely sexual material, although it failed to define obscenity. In Regina v. Hicklin, 1857, obscenity was described as that which depraves and corrupts minds that are susceptible to immoral influences. This, in turn, was the basis for the famous United States Comstock Law of 1873, which established penalties for anyone mailing or receiving obscene, lewd, or lascivious publications.
A famous application of the obscenity laws to literature was the attempt by the federal government to stop the importation of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), resulting in a decision by the U.S. district court in New York in 1933 that the novel is not obscene. D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was suppressed in the United States until 1959, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) until 1961. In 1948, the Supreme Court affirmed that Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) is obscene. In 1967, Congress established the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, which recommended the repeal of all general obscenity legislation, finding that there is no evidence that obscenity causes antisocial behavior. President Richard M. Nixon and the U.S. Senate rejected the findings.
After various obscenity trials, the legal test involved came to be...
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