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The Sex Side of Civil Liberties: United States v. Dennett and the Changing Face of Free Speech


It was the policy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) during the 1920s to contest only those obscenity regulations that were “relied upon to punish persons for their political views.” So stated a 1928 ACLU bulletin, reiterating a position to which the organization had adhered since its formation in 1920. For the majority of the ACLU's executive board, “political views” encompassed the struggle for control of the government and the economy, but not of the body. The early ACLU was not interested in defending avant-garde culture, let alone sexual autonomy.

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Leigh Ann Wheeler , “Rescuing Sex from Prudery and Prurience: American Women's Use of Sex Education as an Antidote to Obscenity, 1925–1932,” Journal of Women's History 12 (2000): 173–96 (describing opposition by Reverend William Sheafe Chase)

Martha Minow , “We, the Family: Constitutional Rights and American Families,” Journal of American History 74 (1987): 959–83

John M. Craig , “‘The Sex Side of Life’: The Obscenity Trials of Mary Ware Dennett,” Frontiers 15 (1995): 145–66

Constance M. Chen , The Sex Side of Life: The Story of Mary Ware Dennett (New York: New Press, 1996)

David E. Bernstein , Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform [University of Chicago Press, 2011])

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Emily Zackin , “Popular Constitutionalism's Hard When You're Not Very Popular: Why the ACLU Turned to Courts,” Law and Society Review 42 (2008): 367–95

Michael Kent Curtis , Free Speech, “The People's Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000)

Kristin Luker , “Sex, Social Hygiene and the Double-Edged Sword of Social Reform,” Theory and Society 27 (1998): 601–34

Felix Frankfurter , “The Business of the Supreme Court at October Term, 1929,” Harvard Law Review 44 (1930): 140, 19, n. 22

Paul Vanderham , James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses (Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1998)

Carmelo Medina Casado , “Legal Prudery: The Case of Ulysses,” Journal of Modern Literature 26 (2002): 9098

Recent Cases: Obscenity, Test of Obscene Literature,” Harvard Law Review 48 (1935): 519–20

Leo M. Alpert , “Judicial Censorship of Obscene Literature,” Harvard Law Review 52 (1938): 4076

Hazel C. Benjamin , “Lobbying for Birth Control,” Public Opinion Quarterly 2 (1938): 4860

Nadine Strossen , “Regulating Racist Speech on Campus: A Modest Proposal?” Duke Law Journal (1990): 484573

Robert W. Gordon , “Critical Legal Histories,” Stanford Law Review 36 (1984): 57125

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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