"Quiet! Loose talk can cost lives." Office of War information 1943. Credit: National Archives


A History of Censorship

Americans have sought to censor all kinds of expression: political speech, music, radio, TV, film, even books. In this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian mark the annual Banned Books Week with an uncut account of censorship in American politics, media, and culture. We look at efforts to prevent the discussion of controversial subjects from slavery to sex, Hollywood’s production code and how the line between free speech and censorship has changed over time.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Full Episode Transcript

ED AYERS: This is “BackStory.” I’m Ed Ayers.


In the 1930s, a Hollywood exact named Joe Breen started censoring nearly every film heading to theaters. Why would the studios allow this.


THOMAS DOHERTY: Because everybody in Hollywood new Joe Breen was far preferable to censorship boards in states across America. Those guys were really whacked.


ED AYERS: Movies haven’t been the only target of censors in American history. In 1800, President John Adams imprisoned a journalist who slandered him.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: He described Adams as having hands reeking with the blood of a poor, friendless Connecticut sailor.


ED AYERS: This week, Banned, a history of censorship, from suppressing the debate over slavery to tying reporters hands in the Gulf War with military guidelines.


JOE GALLOWAY: If those rules were followed, you couldn’t cover anything or report anything.


ED AYERS: Coming up on “BackStory,” a history of censorship. Don’t go away.


PETER ONUF: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.


ED AYERS: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.


BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with Peter Onuf.


PETER ONUF: Hey, there, Brian.


BRIAN BALOGH: And Ed Ayers is with us.


ED AYERS: Hello, gentlemen. We’re going to begin today in the summer of 1835, in Charleston, South Carolina’s post office. The postmaster, a man named Albert Huger, had a problem. He watched as large sacks of strange mail streamed into his office. Columbia University historian Richard John says that Huger was witnessing the first direct mail campaign in US history.


RICHARD JOHN: Abolitionists based in New York City, American Anti-Slavery Society, hit upon a scheme flooding the South with newspapers, advocating the immediate abolition of slavery.


ED AYERS: The abolitionists aimed to put the moral argument against slavery right under white Southerners’ noses. But when slaveholders caught wind of the campaign, they were outraged. They also feared it was the first step to fomenting a slave rebellion, which brings us to the Charleston post master’s predicament.


RICHARD JOHN: He says to himself, oh, my gosh, if I permit these tracts to be distributed, this might threaten everything in the mail. That is to say this might encourage a mob to assail the mail en route to the Charleston office or en route to other offices. So he sees it as sort of a poison.


ED AYERS: Huger marked the bags suspicious and threw them in the corner of the post office. Maybe he thought he’d deal with the problem the next day. Or maybe he knew those bags wouldn’t be there for a long.


RICHARD JOHN: On Wednesday, July 29, 1835, at some point between 10:00 and 11:00 in the evening, a small group of men, identified as the Lynch Men, broke into the post office in Charleston, South Carolina, by forcing open a window with a crowbar.


ED AYERS: The Lynch mobs stole the bags of abolitionist tracts.


RICHARD JOHN: The following night, the Lynch Men burned these tracts, along with effigies of three of the leading abolitionists, in a spectacular bonfire, watched by a loud and enthusiastic crowd of 2,000, which was around 1/7 of the entire white population of the city.


ED AYERS: The bonfire solved Huger’s problem. But it created one for the federal government. The Postmaster General, a man named Amos Kendall, knew the government couldn’t censor newspapers streaming in from the North. But many local governments in the South had laws criminalizing abolitionist messages.


So with President Andrew Jackson’s backing, the Postmaster General circulated a letter saying that local law in the South trumped the national law. The nation’s first mass mailing, soon turned into the first mass censorship of the US Mail.


RICHARD JOHN: This made it easy for the Southern state governments to enforce a sort of Berlin Wall around the states to prevent information from entering their territory that would be threatening.


ED AYERS: The censorship stood for 25 years until the Civil War. While that was a blow for abolitionists, the act of censorship itself represented a long-term win. You see, in the early 1830s, slavery wasn’t a national political issue. But after this event in Charleston, growing numbers of Northerners were outraged by the effort to silence abolitionist voices.


RICHARD JOHN: And once it became commonly believed that the federal government was threatening civil liberties in its attempt to protect the interests of Southern slaveholders, to many thousands, millions of Americans who had no particular interest in the slavery issue one way or the other, the abolitionist issue could much more easily be re-envisioned as a defense a fundamental American values.


PETER ONUF: Americans have long cherish their constitutional right to free speech. But the nation has repeatedly bumped up against the limits of that speech.


BRIAN BALOGH: Every year, the American Library Association spotlights books that are pulled from local schools and libraries. They call it Banned Books Week. So this year, we’re marking the occasion by taking a look at episodes of censorship in US history. We’ve got stories of journalists jailed for mocking the president, censorship of a 19th century sex columnist, and Hollywood studios self-censoring to boost their bottom line.


ED AYERS: But first, we’re going to turn back to the fight over censorship in the mid-1830s. After being shut out of the postal service, the American Anti-Slavery Society brought the issue of slavery to a new venue, the United States Congress.


The group tried to keep the issue of slavery in the public eye by flooding Congress with thousands of anti-slavery petitions. Then sympathetic congressmen would read the petitions on the floor of the House.


PETER ONUF: Southern lawmakers were incensed. In 1836, they began passing a series of resolutions tabling the petitions. Known as the gag rule, the resolutions in effect outlawed talk of slavery on the House floor. But a small group of anti-slavery congressman refused to be silenced. They read the petitions anyway.


The leader of this group was none other than John Quincy Adams. The former president, diplomat, and senator had been nicknamed Old Man Eloquent. And he was carrying up for his final campaign.


Adams regularly stood on the House floor to read anti-slavery petitions. One account from an abolitionist in the stands painted a raucous picture.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Scores of Southerners, on their feet howling, screaming, calling points of order, calling for the Speaker to put him down, saying how are we supposed to stand these insult? Someone please put him down.


PETER ONUF: This is Yale University historian Joanne Freeman. She describes the scene and John Quincy Adams’s battle against censorship in her forthcoming book, The Field of Blood, Congressional Violence in Antebellum America.


JOANNE FREEMAN: And a bunch of Southerners went and stood around Adams’ chair to try and intimidate him that way. And Adams supposedly looked up and said, oh, so does the shoe pinch? Well, I’ll make it a pinch more.


So Adams was in full Adams form. But the fellow watching this wrote in his letter, I’ve never seen anything like before.


PETER ONUF: So this sounds like a pretty dangerous situation. Adams is stirring up. Just about every congressman is packing heat at this time. Isn’t that true, Joanne.


JOANNE FREEMAN: A lot of them certainly are packing heat. Or I don’t know what the phrase is for packing–


PETER ONUF: Canes or whatever.


JOANNE FREEMAN: One or the other.


PETER ONUF: So Adams does not get beaten up, if I recall. But it doesn’t mean that other people are immune.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, yeah, Adams is kind of literally and figuratively bulletproof because of who he is. But obviously, other people didn’t have those advantages.


People were intimidated and actually physically attacked. And the most extreme example of that is Joshua Giddings of Ohio, who also really aggressively and consistently, like Adams, made anti-slavery fighting his cause. And not surprisingly, during his congressional career, at least seven times he was assaulted in one way or another.


PETER ONUF: Wow. So let’s talk a little bit about how John Quincy Adams fought. Aside from constantly presenting these petitions, what were some of the moves he made? How did he keep this thing going?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Adams sustained this campaign in a number of ways. And yes, partly it was just being persistent and consistent. But it was also partly how he did it, joined with his amazing skill with parliamentary maneuvering.


For example, there’d be a roll call vote. And in the middle of the roll call vote, when it got to him, he would suddenly bring up an anti-slavery petition. But he knew this was not the thing to do. Adams was deliberately, aggressively kind of flamboyantly violating this gag to make a point about slavery and also to force the public to see the ways in which he and other Northerners were being gagged.


PETER ONUF: This is the most violent kind of censorship. You can’t talk. It sounds to me just faintly un-American. Don’t we have something in the Bill of Rights about free speech?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, certainly, Adams took advantage of that argument, right. One of the things he did was he said– that thing in the Bill of Rights.


PETER ONUF: Yeah, we’ve got a right to petition. What is this nonsense?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Yes, the people have the right to petition. He was really aggressively making that point, particularly, hey, you Northerners, who might not really have strong feelings about slavery yet, you’re probably going to have really strong feelings about the fact that your fundamental right in that First Amendment is being violated.


PETER ONUF: So in some ways, it seems to me, as Southerners began to figure out that this wasn’t really working effectively, they had overplayed their hand. And it maybe hurt their cause in the long run.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Right, absolutely, they essentially– and you can see this even in some of the foremost promoters of the rule– is that they literally and in some cases announced that they were backing down, because it was very apparent the attack on the rule was doing everything that they didn’t want. It was stirring up northern opposition. It was putting anti-slavery into the conversation again and again and again.


And Northerners, of both parties, realized this is now an issue, whether it’s an anti-slavery issue or a First Amendment rights issue. They now feel far more able to stand and say that they don’t like the rule. And on both counts, the rule, Standing Rule 21, gets overturned.


PETER ONUF: Yeah, so they back down. And hooray, American democracy routines itself. And peace and love return to the halls of Congress. Is that the story?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Not so much.


PETER ONUF: Well, tell us, what’s the aftermath of this attempt at extreme censorship?


JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, right, so the extreme censorship goes away. But the violence doesn’t. They still are able to either gag people with calls to order– shut them up effectively with parliamentary maneuvering– or by threatening people, intimidating them, threatening them with dual challenges.


There’s one instance in which a guy called someone to order. And a Southern doesn’t like it. And he comes up to this poor fellow and says, you do that again, and I’m going to cut your throat from here to here.


And he’s wearing a bowie knife, so he could do it. So the violence, I mean, it isn’t every second of every day, every congressman thought he was going to get stabbed in the gut by a Southerner. But the violence was a consistent, continuing threat. And that didn’t stop with the gag rule.


PETER ONUF: Well, thanks so much for joining us today us, Joanne. Joanne Freeman, professor of history at Yale and author of the forthcoming book, The Field of Blood.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Thanks for having me.




BRIAN BALOGH: Ed, Peter, gag rule applied to the nation’s rhetorical body, known as windy and giving speeches forever?


PETER ONUF: Don’t we wish.


BRIAN BALOGH: I really don’t get that. And especially today, I think of Congress. We see them on C-SPAN. It’s broadcast nationally. How do they actually keep this stuff quiet back in the 19th century?


PETER ONUF: Well, Brian, the suppression of those petitions was no secret in the North, because there was full reporting on the gag rule itself all over the North through the Northern press. There was a lot of focus on that single medium, the newspaper. And through that medium, the Northern public, interested or not, was forced to take into consideration what was happening in Congress.


ED AYERS: And you know, Brian, what’s interesting is the way that the White South presented itself from letting that contagion spread within itself. In these very years that the Congress is wrestling with the gag rule, Virginia, the largest slave state, is debating whether they should begin the eventual emancipation of slavery.


Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a general decline in the economy of Virginia, the largest slave state, led many people to wonder is this really the future? And there’s a close vote. And then as soon as that vote’s over, people said, oh, my god, what were we doing? We’re saying all these things that are being published all over the state and all over the country. Some enslaved people could actually read this.


Never again will the future of slavery be publicly debated, discussed in the South. And that is the case.


So the remarkable thing to me is how for 30 years after this the white South manages to suppress within its own borders any discussion about any future of slavery other than its perpetuation. And that takes the form of everything from tarring and feathering, to actually shooting and killing people, to driving people out of the South.


And so the gag rule fails in Congress. But it certainly succeeds across the South as a whole.


PETER ONUF: That’s right, Ed. And I think it’s important to remember that Southerners in Congress were bullies for a reason. It’s not just that they were pathological personalities. They saw that their whole way of life was at risk. And that required both a strong defense against the outside and strong policing on the inside. And that’s a combination that ends up being fateful for the future of the Union.




ED AYERS: Earlier we heard from Richard John, a historian at Columbia University and author of Spreading the News, the American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. A version of that story aired in our episode on the history of the post office.


BRIAN BALOGH: It’s time for a short break. But stay with us. When we get back, how calling the president a hoary headed incendiary landed one man in jail.


PETER ONUF: You’re listening to BackStory. And we’ll be right back.


PETER ONUF: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.


BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.


ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re marking Banned Books Week with an hour on the history of censorship in the United States. Before the break we heard about the decades long attempt to censor anti-slavery messages. But that wasn’t the country’s first struggle over free speech.


PETER ONUF: In 1799, a journalist named James Thomson Callender published a pamphlet called “The Prospect Before Us.” His chosen target was the US President, John Adams.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: He described Adams as having hands reeking with the blood of a poor, friendless Connecticut sailor.


PETER ONUF: This is historian Richard Bernstein.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: And he’s a lawyer, whose office is the scene of profligacy and usury, and whose purpose is to embroil the country in a war with France.


PETER ONUF: John Adams and his Federalist party had recently passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which among other things, made it illegal to criticize the federal government. Bernstein says Callender wasn’t exactly the most high minded champion of the First Amendment.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: And Callender is the kind of guy who publishes whatever he can find that’s as scurrilous and nasty and defamatory as he can. Because it sells papers.


PETER ONUF: Callender was thrown in prison, a move that would outrage journalists today. But Bernstein says there was a context for Adams’s heavy-handed response.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: We are so used to the Constitution and the presidency and all the other institutions as being centuries old and sanctified in their legitimacy and all that other stuff, that we forget how fragile the government was in the 1790s.


Most people basically thought that the government was little more than the character and reputation of those holding office under it. See if you damaged the character and reputation, say, of the president or Congress, then you’re damaging the constitutional system itself. And you could, if you go too far, bring the whole thing down.


PETER ONUF: And how effective was the Federalist campaign against the Republican press?


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: Printers were indicted, tried, convicted, sentenced, jailed, and fined. Even those printers who were not indicted and so forth start to worry– what’s going to come over the hill next week? Is a federal grand jury going to indict me for violating the statute? I’d better be careful.


PETER ONUF: So this is a chilling effect of–


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: This is exactly the phrase I was thinking of. This is a way of keeping people from speaking their minds.


PETER ONUF: So we have this law on the books, creating new federal crime, and has a tremendous chilling effect, and potentially jeopardizing the future of the free press in America. But it does have a “sell by” date. It’s going to expire after a while. Tell us a little bit about the history of the Sedition Act.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: Well, the Sedition Act has two odd features. One is if you look at the list of government officials that you can’t criticize, there’s one key player who’s missing. The Federalists list the president, Congress, and the government. But they omit the second ranking in the government, the vice president, who happens to be a Republican named Thomas Jefferson.


So all Federalists can slime Jefferson with impunity. Nothing’s going to happen to them under the Sedition Act.


The other feature of it is the Federalists built an expiration date into the Sedition Act. The expiration date happened to coincide with the end of John Adams’s term as president.


The Federalists thought, well, if Adams gets reelected, we will reenact the Sedition Act for another four years.


PETER ONUF: If not, they don’t have it.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: If not, Adams’s opponents will not have it to use against us. And that’s pretty much what happens.


There’s what I might call unfinished business or loose ends. Even though the Sedition Act expires, there are still printers who are indicted, tried, convicted, jailed, and fined. And some of those guys are still in jail. So President Jefferson sets out to pardon them and remit their fines. And that’s supposed to tie up the whole business of the Sedition Act.


PETER ONUF: Let’s get back to James Thomsom Callender. What happened to him?


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: Callender was find heavily. I don’t remember how much. But it was a lot.


The problem was it took a while for the government to remit the fines. And that made Callender angry.


And Callender also felt that he had suffered quite a bit for the cause of Thomas Jefferson. And he wanted a goodie in return. He wants the postmastership of Richmond. And Jefferson didn’t want to do it, and wouldn’t do it.


At which point, Callender says, I’m going to attack everybody I can. And he does.


PETER ONUF: And that would include Thomas Jefferson, of course.


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: Very particularly.


PETER ONUF: Yeah, so tell us how he goes back at–


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: In specific particular, he notes that the man whom the people delight to honor is keeping– and I’m going to clean it up a little bit– an African American concubine named Sally. So in other words Callender is the first guy in the press to expose the alleged relationship– although I don’t believe it’s alleged– between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And this, of course, is scandal.


And then James Thomsom Callender turns up drowned in a local stream.


PETER ONUF: Hmm. Well, Richard, I know you’re on the side of free speech because you speak freely all the time.




PETER ONUF: But when you think back on this period, it sounds as if– you mentioned– you called Callender, poor Callender. You’re sympathetic that he is for all his warts, and he was practically all warts. He’s the hero of your story. Or are you willing to be identified with that?


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: No, James Callender was a racist. One of the reasons he published the Sally Hemings story was he had a horror of interracial sex. And he was also a difficult, impossible, cantankerous, vicious, brutal human being.


And it’s not really great to have him as a symbol of free speech, except sometimes that’s what you get.


PETER ONUF: Right, but the First Amendment is a dead letter if there’s no United States of America, if the government falls apart. So there are limits even to your absolutism, aren’t there?


RICHARD BERNSTEIN: Well, I don’t know about that, because I don’t think that any abuse of free speech or free press that we have seen in our history gives any reason to believe that it would have brought the government down.




PETER ONUF: Richard Bernstein lectures at the City College of New York and is a biographer of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. We’ll link to his books on our website, backstoryradio.org.




BRIAN BALOGH: We just heard about one of the government’s early efforts to muzzle political opinion. But later in the 19th century lawmakers went after another type of speech.


ED AYERS: In 1873, Congress passed legislation outlawing quote “obscene, lewd, or lascivious materials in the mail.” It became known as the Comstock Law, named after the moral reformer, who lobbied for the Act. The US Post Office appointed this same Anthony Comstock to enforce the law.


That meant that Comstock and his agents could legally open anyone’s mail in search of obscene material. Today Comstock is synonymous with heavy handed censorship. The word Comstockery is actually in the dictionary.


But less well known are the names of those he tried to silence. BackStory producer Nina Earnest has a story of one of Comstock’s more colorful opponents.


NINA EARNEST: In the 1890s, a stenographer named Ida Craddock embarked on a new career as a couples counselor.


LEIGH SCHMIDT: A little Dr. Ruth how you could improve your sex life, but also a marriage therapists trying to figure out what’s gone wrong in these relationships and why there’s so much estrangement in any given marriage.


NINA EARNEST: This is Leigh Schmidt, a historian at Washington University in Saint Louis. He says that Craddock was in a unique position, as there weren’t a lot of self-styled sex therapists in buttoned up, Gilded Age America. But Craddock herself was unmarried in her late 30s. So when she started talking publicly about sex and sex reform, some wondered how a chaste woman would know anything about this topic.


LEIGH SCHMIDT: And she said, well, the reason I have this knowledge is I think I can speak of this as a wife. It’s just that she’s a wife of a spirit.


NINA EARNEST: In other words, she believed she had a husband who was a ghost. Craddock, like many Americans of her era, was swept up in the spiritualist religious movement. She believed that she had reconnected with an old love who had died and that she was now having intimate relations with this spirit.


Schmidt says that Craddock knew the public would think she was crazy. So she wrote–


LEIGH SCHMIDT: How far the reader make value my testimony is being the result of my personal experience–


ACTOR AS IDA CRADDOCK: He will, of course, decide according to his bias for or against the possibility of communication with our deceased friends beyond the grave. However, I can truthfully say that I have gained from it a knowledge of sex relations that many years of reading and discussions with other people never brought me.


NINA EARNEST: Armed with her celestial sexual expertise, Craddock wrote six pamphlets full of advice for married couples. These templates supplemented her meager income. Customers would request a copy. And she would sell them for about $0.50 a piece.


But she had to mail them. And that’s how she ran up against Anthony Comstock and his censorship regime.


CRAIG LAMAY: He basically worked under the aegis of the post office and seized anything that he found to be offensive.


NINA EARNEST: This is Craig LaMay, a journalism professor at Northwestern University. He says that it didn’t take much to offend Comstock. The moral reformers saw obscenity everywhere, not just in dirty pictures, but in works of art and even medical textbooks.


CRAIG LAMAY: Anytime he learned about someone engaged in some activity, whether it was an art gallery or a physician offering contraceptive services, or whether it was a book dealer, he would basically make a solicitation for services or products. And then the moment they were provided to him, he would arrest them. He basically did entrapment.


NINA EARNEST: Comstock claimed that he and his network of informants confiscated 160 tons of allegedly obscene material and prosecuted over 3,500 people. The eccentric Ida Craddock was one of them.


Post office agents appalled by her pamphlets explicit references to sexuality brought federal cases against her in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington DC.


LEIGH SCHMIDT: All you have to do to prove that something is obscene literature is to point to a single passage in a text and show that that passage could insight lascivious thoughts in someone.


NINA EARNEST: Prosecutors would read her marital advice out loud in the courtroom. In one pamphlet, called “The Wedding Night,” she wrote that it was a wife’s duty to, quote, “perform pelvic movements.”


LEIGH SCHMIDT: Women have been so taught to be passionate, have been so taught that they try not to show any feelings. So she’s trying to get people to move. And you read that in court, you’re pretty much guaranteed you’re going to be seeing as wildly obscene.


NINA EARNEST: Craddock fought Comstock by claiming that she had the protection of the First Amendment, you know the one that says, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. There was just one problem.


CRAIG LAMAY: For the most part what he did nobody thought of then as raising any kind of First Amendment issue.


NINA EARNEST: That’s Craig LaMay again. He says the Supreme Court didn’t set the precedent for our modern understanding of freedom of speech until later in the 20th century. So for Craddock and others the most famous amendment wasn’t a ready defense against Comstock and its agents.


CRAIG LAMAY: They didn’t have any legal precedent to rely on. I mean, there weren’t any First Amendment cases to fall back on. So they might have argued in some abstract way for a right to speak freely. But they simply would not have formulated the arguments that way. And they didn’t.


NINA EARNEST: Craddock never won a case. But she did manage to avoid jail time– at least until 1902. That year, she relocated to New York City. And despite knowing the risks, she continued to send out her pamphlets.


LEIGH SCHMIDT: I think at that point, she really saw herself as standing for religious freedom, freedom of press, freedom of expression. And in some ways, I think she’s courting this climactic showdown with Comstock.


NINA EARNEST: This time Comstock arrested her in person. She first had a state trial, which he lost and spent three months in a work house. The prison was overcrowded, filled with vermin, and had no running water.


LEIGH SCHMIDT: It’s after she gets out of jail for that three-month sentence, and she’s awaiting the federal trial, that she’s very fearful at this point that because she’s been tried so many times and is such a repeat offender that she’s going to get the maximum sentence. So she’s got it into her head she’s going to get a five-year sentence.


NINA EARNEST: She was 45. And based on her three months in the work house–


LEIGH SCHMIDT: She doesn’t think she’s going to survive jail.


NINA EARNEST: Craddock lost her federal trial. She had nothing to do but wait for sentencing on October 17, 1902. That day she was found dead in her apartment. Ida Craddock had sealed the room, filled it with gas, and slit her wrists. The marriage reformer left two note behind, one for her mother and one to the public.


ACTOR AS IDA CRADDOCK: I resolved that if again attacked by Comstockism, I would stand my ground and fight to the death. Perhaps the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs, which permits that unctuous, sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and freedom of press.


LEIGH SCHMIDT: She stages it well. Her suicide becomes this cause celeb among free speech activists. And they pound Comstock for, as they see it, driving this innocent, pure-minded woman to her death. It’s a setback for him. It becomes one of the cases that really he has a hard time living down.


CRAIG LAMAY: And she was by no means the only one. He’s used to boast about people who committed suicide. When he prosecuted people and they committed suicide, he through his work was done. He took credit, I believe, for at least 15 different suicides.


NINA EARNEST: Her death didn’t bring Comstock down. He was on a crusade to protect American youth from obscenity, a major concern for the public. So he kept his position until he died in 1915.


CRAIG LAMAY: Comstock is, most people now view him, as kind of a blot on the American history of free expression. OK, I buy that. But at the same time, for most of his career, he had the support of the press. He had the support of powerful people. And he public opinion on his side.


NINA EARNEST: In the 20th century, the Supreme Court would expand Americans’ right to free expression, too late for Ida Craddock.


ED AYERS: Nina Earnest is one of BackStory’s producers.




BRIAN BALOGH: Let’s turn to the present now with bestselling novelist, poet, and filmmaker Sherman Alexie. In 2007, Alexie wrote a novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The story is based on Alexie’s childhood on the Spokane reservation in eastern Washington.


Told in the voice of a 14-year-old boy, the novel doesn’t shy away from painful subjects– bullying, poverty, violence, and alcoholism. This candor won Alexie a huge fan base among teens. It also won him a National Book Award.


But in 2014, Absolutely True Diary won the more dubious honor of being the book most frequently banned or challenged in America. I asked Alexie where he thought his novel fit in the long list of banned books throughout American history.


SHERMAN ALEXIE: I mean, when you start talking about To Kill a Mockingbird or Naked Lunch or On the Road, part of me wants to say, I don’t really fit into that because perhaps there’s actually a new category of banning that didn’t exist so much before. Where before, I think it was about saving the whole country from evil writers. The new banning is trying to pretend kids are immature.


BRIAN BALOGH: Well, you’ve been very straightforward about your work being pretty autobiographical. I’m curious to know what it’s like to have a book banned for something that actually happened to you.


SHERMAN ALEXIE: You know, I suppose at the beginning it hurt my feelings a bit. You know, the book is about being bullied. So when people ban the book, I see them as bullies. And actually it’s sort of a challenge. And it’s also I enjoy it because all’s it means is that every kid in that community, in that school is now going to want to read the book.


BRIAN BALOGH: Well, that’s true. I’m sure it help sales.


SHERMAN ALEXIE: Oh, you know I’ve been a national best seller for eight years now.


BRIAN BALOGH: Well, who’s the target audience of Absolutely True Diary?


SHERMAN ALEXIE: I mean, what it’s come down to is a lot of kids have been reading the book who feel trapped by their communities, who feel trapped by the expectations placed upon them– you know African American kids, Spanish-speaking kids, little farm town, little mining town. You know, I’ve got letters from kids going to really, really exclusive private school who also feel trapped by their families and their communities.


BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah, you mentioned letters. Have you gotten letters?


SHERMAN ALEXIE: Thousands of letters. Often in those letters, kids will confess to very difficult things happening to them. And it’s often very difficult to read the letters– they end up being so confessional. But the book matters to them so much that sometimes the kids feel like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen themselves in a book, recognize themselves in a book. And that powerful connection frees them to write.


BRIAN BALOGH: I want to ask you a question about history. Do you think if your work was set on an Indian reservation in 1915 it wouldn’t have gotten so much push back?


SHERMAN ALEXIE: I mean, everybody loves, you know, 19th century Indians. We’re sad and defeated in the 19th century. Having an Indian in the 21st century means we’re alive and thriving and ready to challenge you on your bull [BLEEP].


Reading a book about Native Americans opens up this entire terrible history. And I think certain parents aren’t so much afraid of the content of anyone book as they are that book might serve as a springboard to a much larger education by any particular kid.


BRIAN BALOGH: Well, fortunately, school kids don’t have iPhones or access to the web.


SHERMAN ALEXIE: But the thing is they are still being told by authority figures that something is wrong. And so really, despite the fact that there’s all this other information available all the time, when a authority figure is telling you something is right or wrong, that is developing your moral system. That’s the dangerous part about censorship.


BRIAN BALOGH: Sherman, is censorship getting better? Or is it getting worse? Or is it just a constant in our lives?


SHERMAN ALEXIE: Well, you know, when you think about school bannings, library challenges, and all this stuff, really on a pure numbers basis, there aren’t that many. There were a lot of forest fires in Washington state this summer. And it just occurred to me that what we’re doing with fighting against these censorship efforts, these banning efforts is that we’re putting out spot fires. We’re putting out lightning strikes, because otherwise these things can grow into larger movements, into conflagrations of oppression.


So each of these is not necessarily dangerous on their own, except inside that particular community. But if they start building together, then it becomes something truly scary.




BRIAN BALOGH: Sherman Alexie is the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It was the most frequently banned or challenged book in the US last year.




PETER ONUF: It’s time for us to take another break. When we return, a look back at Hollywood self-censorship.


ED AYERS: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.




ED AYERS: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.


BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.


PETER ONUF: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about the history of censorship in the United States. We’ve already heard a lot about the government’s role in censoring the public, from jailing journalist in the 1790’s, to prying into mail a century later. We’re going to turn now to one industry’s attempt to censor itself.


ED AYERS: In the 1920s and early ’30s, Hollywood producers weren’t exactly shy about using sex to sell tickets. Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, says a classic example of silver screen scandal is the 1932 Jean Harlow film, Red Headed Woman.


THOMAS DOHERTY: And when she sleeps her way to the top and is not punished for it all.


JEAN HARLOW: I’m on my way up to the boss’s house with his mail.


WOMAN: Why didn’t his secretary do it?


JEAN HARLOW: Don’t be dumb. His wife’s in Cleveland.


THOMAS DOHERTY: And at the end of the film, you see her in Paris with this sugar daddy in the backseat of a Rolls Royce. She’s got a mink on. And as the camera pulls back from them, you see her wink in the mirror at the chauffeur, who smiles.


ED AYERS: That ending might not raise eyebrows today. But movies featuring sex and violence, chafed many collars in the American Catholic Church. Church leaders formed the National Legion of Decency in 1933 and commanded that their flock boycott theaters.


Hollywood producers recognized the threat to their bottom line. So they worked with two Catholic leaders to create a production code to guide their films.


BRIAN BALOGH: The code wasn’t just a list of words you couldn’t say, like the FCC’s list that prevents us from saying [BLEEP] and [BLEEP] over the airways. Instead it was a 5,000 word guideline for how to produce moral stories.


It’s principles of plot demanded that no plot or theme should definitely side with evil and against good. This meant that instead of the main character in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men getting away with murder, he faces the arm of the law.


The Hollywood Production Code went into effect in 1934. Thomas Doherty says, the job of implementing it fell to one man.


THOMAS DOHERTY: An iron hammer, and the guy who does this really, sort of one of the most important people in the history of American censorship, is a guy named Joseph I. Breen. He’s the guy on the scene in Hollywood, head of the Production Code Administration. And you got to get through Joe Breen or your film does not get a production code seal. And that means it does not get distributed in the 16,000 theaters in America.


BRIAN BALOGH: Wow, pretty important guy. So what did he look like? And how did he roll


THOMAS DOHERTY: He was your basic Victorian Irishman. Came from Philadelphia, very stern guy, very strict Catholic, but nobody’s fool. Every screenwriter in Hollywood knew that you put like five lines into your script, hoping you could negotiate and get one of them by. But the lines would have to be elusive, have to sort of not be explicitly sexual.


And maybe the best known example is from the film Casablanca, which to me has sort of the most romantic elusive lines all of classical Hollywood cinema.


BRIAN BALOGH: I know where you’re going . You’re going to a specific place, right?


INGRID BERGMAN: What about us?


HUMPHREY BOGART: We’ll always have Paris.


THOMAS DOHERTY: Just think of that line. He’s clearly not talking about that time he had with Ingrid Bergman at the Eiffel Tower watching that great view.


BRIAN BALOGH: Well, I’m just assuming that, you know, if you’re a director, producer in Hollywood, you hate this guy.


THOMAS DOHERTY: No, because everybody in Hollywood new that Joe Breen was far preferable to a hundred local censors from Atlanta or Nashville, Philadelphia, you name it, censorship boards in states across America. Those guys were really whacked. With Joe Breen, you could have lunch. You could sit down. You had one guy to deal with who was reasonable.


And you had the Production Code. It’s sort of like a constitution. We can all argue about its meaning. So if there are precedents for something, you could come to Joe Breen and say, well you passed it two years ago in this film. Where if you went to– Nashville had notorious censor named Lloyd T. Benford, just a vile racist.


And he would clip out or not allow to be shown in Nashville any film that had African Americans and whites having a nice relationship, even children. So things like the Little Rascals movies, he wouldn’t allow to be shown because they showed interracial harmony. So if the choice is between Lloyd T. Benford and Joe Breen, it’s kind of obvious.


BRIAN BALOGH: And did Joe Breen inoculate films against the Benfords of the world? In other words, did local censors get a second bite of the apple.


THOMAS DOHERTY: They could. But when Breen comes on, these local and state censorship boards start losing a lot of their power. Because if you look at the box office from, say ’33 to ’34, there’s a slide in the early ’30s during the pre-code era. And then in 1934, this slide reverses itself. And ’34, you start seeing this uptick in box office.


And so the moguls say, ah, we put the code in in ’34. People seem to be responding at the box office window. The production code is working.


BRIAN BALOGH: Now, Tom, you study film for a living. Is that your explanation of why audiences increase?


THOMAS DOHERTY: I think there was something to it. And part of this is just because of the tone of the Great Depression, where in an age of real political and economic chaos and uncertainty, people seem to crave in popular art the sense of security and the sense of morality. And the modern notions we have a free expression, people in the 1920s and ’30s, by and large, didn’t feel that way. They accepted kind of social control from their church, from their state, from their family, that I think most Americans–


BRIAN BALOGH: From the town fathers.


THOMAS DOHERTY: Oh, that’s actually a good phrase, because one of the things that made the local exhibitors so desirous of a production code is like the Sheriff’s wife would corner you in the lobby and say, how can you show such immoral films? And if they can make a lot of money with, say, Shirley Temple rather than Mae West, and nobody’s calling them a smut merchant, I mean, they’re going to pick Shirley Temple every day.


BRIAN BALOGH: You know, Breen retired from the Production Code Administration in 1954. And believe it or not, I’ve been to a film or two since then. And they’re very different than the films you’re describing. What happened?


THOMAS DOHERTY: Well, what happened is America changed. That America no longer demanded from its popular culture moral order. And I think the other thing that happened– and this has to do with the war– is that we no longer ceded those kind of decisions too public authorities, whether they’re from the state or from the church, that Americans decided, well, I can decide what movie I want to go to myself.


And to me, the film that shows this more than any other motion picture is a film from 1960. And if any of your listeners are old enough to happen to have seen it in the theater, I would wager they remember where they were and what theater they saw this film in, because it’s such a primal movie memory for that generation. And the film, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.






THOMAS DOHERTY: After you see Psycho it’s like the Production Code’s over. The sex, the violence, the lack of moral order. I mean, that’s the film that even though there is nominally a code still in effect, it’s– it’s over after Psycho.




BRIAN BALOGH: Thomas Doherty is professor of American studies at Brandeis University. He’s the author of Hollywood Censor, Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration.




PETER ONUF: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today we’re looking at this seesaw between free speech and censorship in American history. We’re going to end the show today with a few of press censorship during war.


In many military conflicts, censorship was routine and often transparent. During World War II, the government even opened an office of censorship to regulate news reports. But we’re going to fast forward 50 years when the Pentagon shifted tactics.


BRIAN BALOGH: In the fall of 1990, Joe Galloway was gearing up to cover the First Gulf War for the US News and World Report. He was about to leave for Saudi Arabia when he received the Pentagon’s new set of rules for wartime journalists.


JOE GALLOWAY: The rules ran 36 pages, double-sided, small type. And if those rules were followed, you couldn’t cover anything or report anything.


BRIAN BALOGH: Galloway was shocked. He’d been a reporter during the Vietnam War when the military’s guidelines ran just one page.


JOE GALLOWAY: Vietnam, in fact, was the most openly and freely covered war in the history of our country.


BRIAN BALOGH: The Pentagon trusted reporters would not reveal any information that might compromise national security. There were no military censors.


JOE GALLOWAY: Movement was never limited for me. I went wherever I wanted to go and generally was welcomed at the other end by the shoulders that I was covering.




BRIAN BALOGH: Dan Hallin, a communications professor at UC San Diego, says this press freedom created a myth by the end of the Vietnam War.


DAN HALLIN: I mean there’s different versions of this idea that the US lost the war in Vietnam because it lost its will to win. And that was the responsibility of the media, that was due to media coverage of the war. That’s a view that developed after the war.


BRIAN BALOGH: Galloway insists the press never had that much influence.


JOE GALLOWAY: I wish that I could have written a story so powerful that it would have driven us out of that war, in which case there would only be 1,100 names on that black granite wall in Washington DC instead of 58,290. What really turned public opinion in Vietnam was not what they saw on television and on the evening news. What it was was an absolutely endless flow of bright, shiny aluminum body containers flying home to every little town in America.


BRIAN BALOGH: But Hallin says the myth became conventional wisdom within the Pentagon. When the US military started planning for the next wars–


DAN HALLIN: They took the attitude that media coverage inevitably means the decline of public support for a war. And therefore, you have to restrict the media as much as possible.


ED AYERS: And so during the First Gulf War, the Pentagon relied on press pools, small groups of journalists who were granted permission to cover the same event. And the US military decided where to send those journalists.


DAN HALLIN: And for the most part, the pools were not sent to where the fighting was actually going on. So most journalists had the experience that they missed that war essentially, that they were back in a hotel and not where actual fighting was going on.


ED AYERS: As a result, reporters found themselves censored ahead of time.


DAN HALLIN: I mean if the journalists can’t get there to record the story to begin with, then you don’t even need to censor them, because they don’t have anything substantial to report.


ED AYERS: And there was enough a problem with the pool system. Even journalists who got good access to combat zones still lived in the shadow of Vietnam. John Fialka, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal during the Gulf War recalls reporters with access to a military helicopter during battle. They witnessed the army flanking maneuver that would ultimately decide the war.


JOHN FIALKA: And they got back to an airfield where they found one phone. And there’s a line of soldiers calling home to say, hi, mom, I’m OK. And the officer in charge of minding the reporters decided to put them in the back of the line, first telling them how much he hated reporters. There is just a lot of sort of gratuitous hatred spewing out of a war that happened 20 years previously.


And the end, a lot of the copy, a lot of the videotape, a lot of pictures got delayed to the point where nobody ever saw it.


ED AYERS: Fialka says the news business is like the milk business. It has to be fresh. Editors would likely dump reports of three-day-old battles.


JOHN FIALKA: The news of the war is the first draft of history. If the first draft has big holes in it or is censored or whatever, then you have tampered with your own history.


ED AYERS: And when the Pentagon went back to review these first drafts of the history, military officials noticed something missing, namely the war.


JOE GALLOWAY: You know, I went to conferences after the war where they put the generals on one side of the table and us on the other. And one of the generals started complaining. And I said where your pool journalists. He said, oh, I locked them up in the rear at headquarters and didn’t bring them forward.


And I said, and now you’re complaining you have no film of your great successes on the battlefield. Whose fault is it?


ED AYERS: Determined to learn from their mistake, the Pentagon sought a new strategy for wars that were to follow.


BRIAN BALOGH: The solution was the embed system, which attached reporters to military units inside combat zones. It gave more journalists more access than press pools. Embedded journalists in military units also kept them safe in increasingly dangerous war zones.


Most news organizations have depended on the system since the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Still, Hallin notes that the embed system is simply another form of censorship, rather than a return to the open coverage of Vietnam.


DAN HALLIN: Most news organizations were aware that the policy of embedding was good at giving them access but would give them a limited view of what was actually going on, because they would be accompanying US troops, and they’d be reporting things essentially from the point of view of US troops.


BRIAN BALOGH: And those limits matter in a democracy. Fialka says that the press needs to be able to record on a war as freely and openly as possible.


JOHN FIALKA: The public pays billions of dollars for these episodes. And they should understand how they work and how they don’t work. And it really is in the military’s interest to get the truth out there, because they’re representing a country that puts a great deal of value in the First Amendment.


BRIAN BALOGH: John Fialka helped us tell that story. He was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and is the author of Hotel Warriors, Covering the Gulf War. We also heard from Joe Galloway, who reported for United Press International and US News and World Report and is the author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young. And Daniel Hallin, professor at UC San Diego and author of The Uncensored War, the Media and Vietnam.




ED AYERS: That’s going to do it for us today, but don’t censor yourself. Let us know what you thought of the show. Just head over to backstoryradio.org. While you are there, you can help shape our upcoming shows on the history of populism in America and the history of disability, share a story, or ask us question. You can also send an email to BackStory@Virginia.edu or find us on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


BRIAN BALOGH: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Bruce Wallace. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We have help from Melissa Gismondi. Special thanks this week to Katie Olson and Sarah McConnell and to Kristian Peskoe and Deborah Caldwell-Stone from the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.


PETER ONUF: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.




SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is professor of humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


SPEAKER 2: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.