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A History Of American Censorship Laws, Nudity In The Publics Eye

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The origins of "American Censorship Laws" relating to nudity are vague at best. There was a time when America had no federal laws either for or against nudity. The First Amendment actually protects your rights in this area, under the right to freedom of expression. However, local laws are another story. Local laws take precedence over nudity in public, such as federal parks, lands, beaches, and other areas. So under local and state laws in America, you can be arrested for nudity in public. To top it off, nudity is against the law on a person's own property, if it can be observed through the windows, in yards, or any area visible to the general public. There are times when these local and state laws conflict with a citizen's constitutional protections for freedom of expression. This may be the case when the nudity is related to a performance of the arts or even a political demonstration.

Special situations are tolerated in certain states of America, where going nude is tolerated or allowed. These cases have special requirements, being that they are with private facilities, and not visible to the public outside of the private facilities. Nudity laws, for the most part, were built-in the culture of the earlier settlers in America. It appears that the aversion to nakedness has religious undertones. In early trials of the colonist, several judges have pointed to the Bible for reference against nudity.

There was a case study dating back to 1877, where the Supreme Court of one of the states reflected on how Adam and Eve were compelled to wear fig leaf clothing. They pointed out that this was done so that they would not gaze of each others nakedness. In the early 1900s in the USA, women were required to wear layers of clothing while swimming at public beaches and swimming pools. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, in 1907 was arrested in Boston for wearing a one-piece bathing suit. Local officials labeled this as public indecency. There was a backlash from the public in regards to this arrest; The end result was worldwide acceptance of the one-piece suit by 1910.

American Censorship Laws

In the year 1842, the first federal obscenity law in the U.S came about. This law was brought about by the US Customs Service, to seize what it deemed as immoral and obscene visual material. This was done even though the service did not actually define those terms. Several individual states had already enforced these laws early in the century. They zeroed in on illustrations, books, and other printed expressions with sexual content. This was done without any accurate legal definition of actual language describing immoral, lewd, or obscene material.

In 1873 Anthony Comstock was an American grocery clerk that became a social activist. He persuaded Congress to expand the federal obscenity law. The major enforcer of this corrupt and depraved standard was The new Comstock Law. This law barred sending any classified obscene, deemed lewd, or lascivious type book through the mail. Also, hand pamphlets, clear pictures, graphic print, or other clandestine publication of degenerate and morally indecent character were forbidden.

Anthony Comstock was deputized as a special agent of the U.S. Post Office. He had a 40-year tenure as head of the New York society for the suppression of vice. During this time, Comstock seized and destroyed thousands of books. He also did the same to various magazines, illustrated material, and what he considered contraceptive advertisements, sex devices, or anything of this sort.

When Did They start?

Basically, every since civilized men and women started forming groups of different sorts, various governments and powerful religions have made attempts to crack down on any type of expression, that posed a serious threat to their order of things. This would be in the form of books, what they considered as blasphemous speech, certain songs, the sexual expression of any sort, various jokes, pictures, old wives tales, just plain old sexual information, and most definitely going nude.

Around the end of the 16th century in Europe, there was a movement noted by Philippe Aries, in which certain pedagogues refused to let their children be exposed to indecent printed material and books. During the middle period of the 18th century, the notion of sexual childhood innocence fueled an anti-masturbation mania in Europe, as well as America. By the same token, literature and sexually stimulating art were lumped into this category, also.

This way of thinking grew and festered into a movement. During the late 19th century, there was a fusing of anti-vice grips, anti-youth corruption groups, and certain religious factions, which generated the political infrastructure for a massive crackdown of sexual speech and expression in America.

Where Did They Start?

You might say that ground zero of American censorship laws, and the way that nudity is viewed in the public eye had a start in 1868. During this time, there was a case called Regina v. Hicklin. This was started in the English courts, but the American courts soon adopted the rulings. The English coined a definition of obscenity, which was deemed criminally punishable.

The so-called Hicklin standard became the new moral kid on the block. American courts embraced this ruling. Now fast forwarding to 1930, some more reasonable courts rejected the Hicklin standard for interpreting morality. Mary Ware Dennett was a birth control proponent and author, who stirred things up a bit. She was involved in a case about her sex education pamphlet called The Sex Side of Life. Her material, along with a book was written by James Joyce called Ulysses was blocked by the U.S. Customs Department. They refused to let the material come through customs, stating that it was obscene.

Mary Ware Dennett was convicted under obscenity laws, but they were later reversed in 1930 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The court realized that there should be a clear and reasonable version along educational lines, for children to learn about sexual matters. They reiterated that clearly everything with a sexual coronation is not lewd and indecent. Three years later there was a reversal of the Ulysses verdict rendered upon James Joyce. This was pushed by John Woolsey, who was a federal judge. He ruled that her work did not initiate deprave and corrupt thoughts in readers' minds.

In 1957 The Supreme Court made an obscenity ruling in the case Roth v. the United States. In essence, the justices stated that if the material has no redeeming social value, it is not protected by the 1st Amendment. What this did was to open up the field to interpretation experts, who would tie up various rulings in court litigation for years. Some might say, that even though a ruling was rendered, everything related to censorship laws and nudity, was just circumvented for the time being.

Why Did They start?

These actions were started for numerous reasons. The main one being, that first one person, then a group of individuals puts their heads together, then they decided what is best for the public in general. The initial pretense was for the protection of the children. However, using this premise, when does well-balanced thinking enter the scenario? The children need to be told what they need to know in life, to function in a reasonable, responsible, mature sexual manner.

The Brennan verdict created controversy for the next sixteen years. Courts kept on trying to figure if the material had any redeeming social importance. In 1973 the obscenity law took on a new twist. The Supreme Court announced a new obscenity criteria test that empowered local communities to set their own individual censorship standards. This took the monkey off the back of prosecutors. They no longer had to prove if material had to redeem social importance or not.

Below is the three-part test that was to be applied to potential obscenity law violations.

First - Is there an overt display of sexual organs in a lewd or suggestive manner, plus does any material describe or depict activity in an offensive way or manner. Also, if the body shown or described as an attempt to educate the viewer or reader, there was no violation.

Second - Can the average person view or read the material without taking offense to the contents. Also, if contemporary community standards are applied to the material in question, will the average person receive the redeeming value of the contents.

Third - Is there universal artistic, scientific, political, or literary value of the material, when viewed by the average citizen.

Also, certain states went in one direction and others in the opposite direction, about what they would enforce. Certain states located in regions of favorable climates, were more lenient on nudity, for the simple reason that it brought in revenue to the state and local governments. Nude beaches, for instance, would generate more money for the local governments than building community centers. This may seem ridiculous, but the lure of revenue pouring into a strapped local government's economy can alter the thinking of many people.

Do Other Countries Have Them?

There is a plus-minus factor when it comes to other countries and their censorship laws. Every single country has some sort of law of this type. To be reasonable, the ones which will be presented here are the ones to the left and right of the United States. Plus the field will be narrowed down a bit, and deal with the nudity element of obscenity laws. Those countries include Brazil, Canada, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Scandinavian countries, Spain, and the United Kingdom. You will find that their laws are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

More liberal countries tend to have less harsh censorship laws. This type of law usually reflects the will of the people. The countries of Spain, Canada, the UK, Scandinavian countries, and Brazil are more relaxed with their views towards the human body. Hence, their views and laws towards nudity and how it is viewed through the public eye is less suppressive and more mainstream. In the countries just mentioned, under certain circumstances, individuals can indulge in nudity on certain beaches and other similar activities, without being out of place or receiving any threat of censorship.

On the other end of the spectrum are countries like Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and virtually all of the countries located around the two just mentioned, have harsh laws and penalties to match. Public nudity of any sort, and even the women revealing anything but their eyes, in some of these countries, is punishable by extreme measures. Nude sunbathing, skinny dipping, or anything of this sort is condemned, based on religious, cultural, and extreme points of view.

How Were These Laws Passed?

These laws were passed because the individuals of society put their heads together, and formulated a general governing law for an entire group of people, of which they were a part of. However, when challenged, they were tried and tested in the courts. Many of the laws were upheld by the lower courts, but quite a few made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Once this happened, universal rulings were handed down, and whatever was decided became the law of the land.

In America, it only takes one person to get something in their mind, which they feel passionate about. Now this something in their mind can be real or imaginary. Next, they start a petition and get a lot of other people on board and converted to their way of thinking. In progression, they utilize various forms of media, to draft the general public to their way of thinking. Once their agenda is in the minds of the public, they will try to place their idea of a voting ballad for the general public to vote into law, or they will attempt to get their legislators to bring the proposed law up for a vote.

Now if the proposed laws are the type that no level headed official would vote on, based on its own self worth, they will try a different tactic. This tactic is to attach the proposed bill to a valuable piece of legislation, as an attempt to get it passed as a rider. This is also known as a tag along or a worthless piece of legislation that could not stand on its own, but as a rider, it passes and becomes a law, regardless of its civil worth.

What Was Their Reasoning For Such Laws?

The reasoning behind the formulating of such laws was religious in nature, based on suppressed sexual urges, and also based on insecurities related to their fear of change. One of the main reasons for the attempted control of sexual expression is fueled by politics. Many ambitious individuals view this field as an open slam dunk case for them to ride into a political office. They construct their jargon and campaign around any obscenity issue and use it as an attack mechanism for publicity, votes, and eventually a political office. This type of person will just as easily look the other way on issues of this sort if enough money was donated to their campaign war chest.

The problem really gets complicated when several of the politicians who think this way form alliances. They will protect each others legislation, regardless if there is any redeeming social value or not. When looking into individual laws on the books, one quickly realizes that many should never have become laws in the first place. However, once they are on the books, anyone who opposes them will soon find out that they are in for a painstakingly rough time to remove them.

Reasons Why We Don’t Need Them

When you see other more progressive countries, with virtually limited legal constructs regarding their sexual mores and Folkways, you have to question the ones staring you in the face. These other countries established systems seem to be surviving and not falling victim to moral degeneracy. Therefore, this is a true indicator that change is possible. Instead of relying on censorship to fight suppressed urges and pent up frustrations, honest, and frank discussions might be a better alternative.

Every now and then someone or some group will challenge some oppressive sexuality, nudity, or obscenity laws. When challenged, many of the facts that were accepted in the past are exposed as nothing more than a ridiculous piece of legislation, with no value whatsoever to the general public. When this happens to one piece of legislation, it makes you wonder, how many more ridiculous pieces of legislation are on the books around the country, that are obsolete.

How and Why They Should Be Abolished

In America, as I mentioned earlier, the federal government does not generate American censorship laws. This control is mandated to individual states and local governments. The legislatures make the laws, the other branches ratify them, then they are enforced by law enforcement. Now, depending on the part of the country that a person lives in, they will encounter more or less opposition to these laws.

For instance, parts of Florida, California, and Nevada are very laid back when it comes to enforcing laws of this type. The reason being is that much of the economy in these states depends on little or no enforcement of laws of this type. Florida and California have merchants that thrive off the ability for beach nudity and related events that accompany it. In Nevada, the city of Las Vegas with its casinos and adult entertainment, generates a huge amount of revenue. The revenue generated in this state and the other states just mentioned is a major proponent of abolishing many of the censorship laws that are on the books.

Now it stands to reason that all laws of this type, simply won't be abolished, simply because in every state there is a segment of the population who are opposed to any sort of change. In America, the law is based on majority rule and minority rights. As long as there is money coming into the treasuries of governments, derived from sex, nudity, or that which is classified as obscene, the local governments will turn their heads and collect the money. However, to pacify the more moral elements of the different communities, the various local governments will straddle the fence very carefully.

In Conclusion

Many segments of the population are in favor of the obscenity laws, just the way that they are. However, many feel that a reformation is long overdue. American censorship laws, diverse forms of nudity, and how everything is viewed through the public eye is a complex issue. In America, the roots were formed in Europe. Once America got on its feet, it planted its own seeds for censorship and nudity laws. After the seeds took hold and started to sprout, there was an emergence of individuals who were bent on establishing the same sort of censorship laws that they had left in Europe. Through a series of growing pains, legal battles, and the emergence of proponents for each side, the individual states set up their individual laws and enforcement degrees for their own individual interest. In essence, you might say that the bottom line of censorship laws is based on revenue.

Also, about one-fourth of the laws on the books, relating to censorship are antiquated, and would not even be laws if they were not attached to popular legislation as a rider. One might ask how this can happen; the answer is very simple. Public officials tend to look out for constituents in their particular district if they want to get reelected. With this in mind, every legislator is in the same boat and need to form alliances with other politicians. They utilize a tactic commonly called, if you scratch my back, I will scratch yours.

So if a bad or ridiculous piece of legislation comes up for a vote, prearranged deals between politicians ensure its passage, regardless of its value, oppressiveness, or inconvenience to the general public. In essence, many of the obscenity laws exist solely because politicians exchanged favors, to pacify some sexually repressed and irrational constituents.

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