Supporters of censoring pornography usually have no idea of the evils such laws have produced in history. Many of the laws were used to suppress extremely important information and cause tremendous harm. The same can happen today.
An early federal anti-obscenity statute, known as the Comstock law, was passed in 1873 and became the model for a number of state laws. These laws were used for decades to persecute and sometimes destroy early feminists and others who wrote about birth control, venereal disease, or sexual exploitation.
Additionally, the laws caused all forms of sex education to be excluded from schools. And the laws led publishers to censor scientific, physiological, and anatomical works.
This extensive suppression of knowledge occurred because the government, in its alleged wisdom, considered information about contraceptives and sexuality to be “obscene.”
Despite the government’s position, knowledge about those subjects was especially critical to women. An excessive number of unwanted pregnancies often ruined their health, drove them to dangerous and sometimes deadly back-alley abortionists, and caused their families to sink ever-deeper into poverty.
But governmental censors were more offended by contraceptives and sexuality than by the suffering and death of women. So they prosecuted thousands of people under the “obscenity” laws and drove at least 15 women to suicide.
Among them was Ida Craddock, who was imprisoned in 1902 for writing advice manuals on conjugal relations. She continued writing after her release from prison, was arrested again under the Comstock laws, and chose to commit suicide rather than serve a second prison term.
The famous birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger dedicated her life to that movement because of the horrors she had witnessed as an obstetrical nurse in New York. The atrocities included women’s health being destroyed from bearing too many children, women dying from botched abortions, families rendered unable to feed their many members, and the spread of venereal disease.
Sanger’s crusade to make contraceptives available to the poor and others caused her to be jailed repeatedly under the Comstock laws. On one occasion, she faced the possibility of spending 45 years in prison.
Fortunately for the health of millions, the government’s persecution did not intimidate her into silence. While awaiting trial, she courageously published everything she knew about birth control in a pamphlet titled “Family Limitation.” It sold 10 million copies and was translated into 13 languages.
Many other women activists were victims of the censors. David A. J. Richards writes that “no group suffered more from censorship under America’s federal and state obscenity laws than dissident American women, [who were] challenging the dominant pro-natalist gender and sexual orthodoxy of their age.”
One group that may have suffered almost as much were critics of traditional religion. Susan Jacoby relates: “As freethought publications proliferated in the 1880s and 1890s, prosecutions of their editors became more frequent – lending additional support to [the] contention that the antiobscenity statutes were being used to target atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.”
Similar censorship problems have occurred in other countries. Materials that governments banned as being “pornographic” included pro-Jewish writings in Nazi Germany, anticommunist tracts in China and the former Soviet Union, and literature written by blacks in South Africa.
Even today, some in the U.S. would use laws against pornography to censor any number of progressive ideas they find threatening. For example, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the right-wing American Family Association, supports censorship of pornography.
His group’s literature defines pornography as “not dirty words and dirty pictures. It is a philosophy of life which seeks to remove the influence of Christians and Christianity from our society.”
Thus, anything that conflicts with Wildmon’s religious beliefs would apparently be considered pornography – and be fair game for governmental censors.
That type of attitude is a reason why laws against pornography are so dangerous. The laws can lead to efforts to silence virtually any minority viewpoint.
As American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen writes in her book Defending Pornography: “Even in societies that generally respect human rights, including free speech, . . . the term ‘pornography’ tends to be used as an epithet to stigmatize expression that is politically or socially unpopular. Accordingly, the freedom to produce or consume anything called ‘pornography’ is an essential aspect of the freedom to defy prevailing political and social mores.”
And the freedom to defy prevailing political and social mores, as the Founders of the U.S. well knew, is essential for progress and enlightenment to occur.
It’s a reason they passionately supported freedom of speech and enshrined that right in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.