1888 August 23

Morris L. Ernst, First Amendment and Reproductive Rights Pioneer, is Born


Morris L. Ernst was a pioneering civil liberties lawyer in two important areas. First, he was a relentless opponent of censorship and is famous for handling the case that ended the U.S. Customs ban on James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses (December 6, 1933). He was also the first attorney to fight for reproductive rights. In 1943, for example, he unsuccessfully challenged the Connecticut ban on birth control information and devices, in Tileston v. Ullman (February 1, 1943). A later challenge to the law (in which he was not involved), Griswold v. Connecticut (June 7, 1965), overturned the law and established a constitutional right to privacy.

Ernst played an important role in writing a number of books on censorship, privacy, and other civil liberties issues that were addressed to the general public, and in that respect had a major impact on public opinion.His books from the 1920s and 1930s are still valuable resources on the state of censorship in those years.

Ernst also served as co-General Counsel of the ACLU, with Arthur Garfield Hays, from 1924 through the 1950s.

Ernst’s books: To the Pure: A Study of Obscenity and the Censor (with William Seagle, 1928); The Censor Marches On (with Alexander Lindey, 1940); The First Freedom (1946); Privacy: The Right to be Let Alone (with Alan U. Schwartz, 1962)

Visit the Guide to the Morris L. Ernst Banned Book Collection here.

Learn more about Ernst’s pioneering role in challenging censorship: Leigh Ann Wheeler, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (2013)

And more about Ernst’s important role on censorship in the 1920s and 1930s: Laura Weinrib, The Taming of Free Speech (2016)

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