1921 August 14

Postmaster General Hays Disavows Role of Censor


Postmaster General Will Hays on this day, in a speech to the newspaper publishers and editors in the U.S., that he would not play the role of censor in his job. The occasion was his decision to restore the second-class mailing privileges to the German-language newspaper, New Yorker Volkszeitung, which had been denied the privilege, and thereby excluded from the mails, during World War I. The denial of mailing privileges, which was entirely at the discretion of the Postmaster General, was one of the principal devices for suppressing dissent during the war.

Reportedly, the last political book banned by the Post Office in this era was Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. Postmaster General Hays lifted the ban on September 7, 1922. Berkman was the companion of Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist, birth control advocate, and opponent of World War I. Both were deported to the Soviet Union on December 19, 1919 on the famous “Red Ark.”

Tolerance for political dissent, however, did not extend to sexually related materials, and in the 1920s censorship of literature and birth control material steadily increased.

Hays, a Republican in the administration of President Warren G. Harding, was far more tolerant of unpopular opinion than had been President Woodrow Wilson’s postmaster general. The irony is that Hays soon left his government job and became the head of the Motion Picture Producers Association, and in that role he was responsible for the development of greater censorship of the movies. That movement culminated in the notorious Production Code, adopted on June 13, 1934, which exerted a heavy hand of censorship on American movies until the late 1960s.

Read a history of censorship: Paul S. Boyer, Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age (2002)

Check out the anti-censorship efforts of Banned Books Week: http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/

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