1914 May 16

Judge Learned Hand Rebukes Anti-Obscenity Crusader Anthony Comstock


In the midst of a criminal trial in New York City, Judge Learned Hand, who would go on to become of the most famous judges in American history, rebuked anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock. After Comstock had interrupted the trial several times, Hand told him, “I do not wish to hear any more.” It was a rare rebuke for Comstock, who always always found judges sympathetic to his “anti-smut” crusade.

Comstock was the author of the Comstock Act, the most powerful censorship law in the United States from its enactment on March 3, 1873 until about the 1960s, when courts limited its application in a series of decisions. Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which was the most aggressive censorship organization from the 1870s until the 1930s.

Judge Learned Hand became famous during World War I for his District Court decision on July 24, 1917 halting a ban on the anti-war magazine The Masses by the U.S.Post office. It was one of only a handful of decisions during the war affirming First Amendment protection for anti-war speech. Unfortunately, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Hand’s decision and censorship resumed. Hand, however, also wrote the Second Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which the Supreme Court adopted in upholding the constitutionality of the Smith Act in the famous case of Dennis v. United States on June 4, 1951.

Learn more about Anthony Comstock: Heywood Broun and Margaret Leach, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927)

And about the censorship crusade: Paul Boyer, Purity in Print: The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America (1968)

Learn about Comstock at the U. S. Postal Inspection Service here.


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