Control of Obscenity

July 29, 1959

Report Outline
New Controversy Over Postal Censorship
Laws and Court Decisions on Obscenity
Current Applications of Obscenity Tests

New Controversy Over Postal Censorship

Lack of Uniform Definition of Obscenity

Fundamental disagreement between reasonable men, basic to the unending controversy over defining and controlling obscenity, has lately been pointed up by the legal battle involving the controversial book Lady Chatterley's Lover. Postmaster General Arthur E. Summer field barred the unexpurgated edition of the D. H. Lawrence novel from the U.S. mails on June 11, stating that “Any literary merit the book may have is far outweighed by the pornographic and smutty passages and words, so that the book, taken as a whole, is an obscene and filthy work.” The Post Office ban was upset, July 21, by Federal Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan. Examining the novel in the light of the same judicial standards for determining obscenity that Summerfield had applied, Bryan concluded that it was not obscene and that the Postmaster General's ruling was “contrary to law and clearly erroneous.” Bryan noted also that while personal views were not controlling, “I disagree [with the Postmaster General] for I do not personally find the book offensive.”

Lawyers, literary critics, government and police officials, religious groups, political and civic leaders, civil liberties organizations, psychiatrists, and the reading public have wrangled for years over what constitutes obscene matter and what measures can properly be taken to suppress it. The power to decide these and other questions concerning obscenity resides with a multitude of federal, state, and local authorities; in addition, enormous influence is exercised at the local level by citizen groups and religious organizations.

Nearly every state has outlawed the sale or distribution of indecent matter; scores of localities have adopted their own ordinances to combat obscenity; and Congress has long forbidden carriage of obscene matter through the mails or across state lines. But virtually none of these statutes gives a comprehensive legal definition of obscene or lascivious matter. As a result, the subjective finding of a single official or judge often counts heavily in determining whether a book or magazine will be banned from the mails or barred from sale in a particular state or a particular locality.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 16, 2004  Broadcast Indecency
Mar. 28, 2003  Movie Ratings
Nov. 17, 1995  Sex, Violence and the Media
Feb. 19, 1993  School Censorship
Dec. 20, 1991  The Obscenity Debate
Dec. 07, 1990  Does Cable TV Need More Regulation?
May 16, 1986  Pornography
Jan. 04, 1985  The Modern First Amendment
Oct. 19, 1979  Pornography Business Upsurge
Mar. 09, 1979  Broadcasting's Deregulated Future
Mar. 21, 1973  Pornography Control
May 17, 1972  Violence in the Media
Jan. 21, 1970  First Amendment and Mass Media
Jul. 05, 1967  Prosecution and the Press
Jun. 28, 1961  Peacetime Censorship
Apr. 12, 1961  Censorship of Movies and TV
Dec. 23, 1959  Regulation of Television
Jul. 29, 1959  Control of Obscenity
Jul. 27, 1955  Bad Influences on Youth
Mar. 21, 1952  Policing the Comics
Apr. 12, 1950  Censorship of Motion Pictures
Sep. 20, 1939  Censorship of Press and Radio
Freedom of Speech and Press
Postal Service
Regulation and Legal Issues