In 1922, Irish author James Joyce released arguably his greatest work, Ulysses, through his Paris-based publisher. Prior to the novel’s release, it had been serialized in the United States through The Little Review over a period of three years. The content of one of the published chapters was deemed to be obscene under US law and was then barred from distribution via the US Post Office, making the novel itself illegal.
The Value of Art
Fortunately, the American publisher Random House engaged the services of Morris Ernst, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Ernst and Random House arranged to have the French edition of Ulysses shipped to the US and seized by Customs, tipping officials off to the shipment. The seizure was then immediately challenged, leading to the 1933 case of the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses.
Both parties agreed to waive their right to a jury trial and allow the court to rule. Judge John Woolsey took the matter seriously, reading the novel in full and then returning to the challenged passages several times.
I have read “Ulysses” once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter.
“Ulysses” is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of “Ulysses” is, therefore, a heavy task.
The reputation of “Ulysses” in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.
Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was protected under the First Amendment and Random House was free to publish it. He was particularly enamored with Joyce’s employment of stream of consciousness and his dedication to the technique throughout the book. The Judge brilliantly summed up his ruling:
Whether or not one enjoys such a technique as Joyce uses is a matter of taste on which disagreement or argument is futile, but to subject that technique to the standards of some other technique seems to me to be little short of absurd.
Looking back on this case, Woolsey’s keen understanding of artistic expression breathed the ferocious life into the First Amendment we now enjoy.
Free to Consume (or Not)
Such a ruling in a far more conservative period of American history has since set the tone for free expression and our understanding of how we consume different content. It is not within the scope or authority of the government, at any level, to prevent the publishing and distribution of ideas.
We are free to consume any form of media that we choose, in any manner that we choose. Even if such expressions could be considered offensive, obscene, blasphemous, seditious, or malicious, every individual has the opportunity to disseminate information.
What must truly be understood about such liberties is that it is a two-way street or, if you prefer, a double-edged sword. While we are free to publish and disseminate the content and media of our choosing, we are also free to personally reject such content.
In the marketplace of ideas, we may choose what books we wish to read, music to which we wish to listen, art we wish to view, movies, shows, and plays we wish to watch. No one possesses the authority to stop us, nor does anyone possess the authority to force us.
The beauty of a free marketplace is that it provides numerous tools for us to control what content we view, without censoring the content itself. Ratings, channel blocks, parental advisories, etc. are all available to help make informed decisions possible. Simply put, if you don’t like something, don’t watch. But, if you will indulge me, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.
Spirit of the Law
In the literal sense, the First Amendment prevents government censorship and guarantees that each individual can express themselves in whatever manner they see fit. But the law only goes so far. What is equally important is the manner in which we treat such liberties.
During Banned Book Week, we celebrate authors who have had their work repeatedly challenged and removed from stores, libraries, and schools. But most of these books have not faced any significant censorship outside of members of the public complaining or boycotting, along with publishers recommending or demanding certain changes from the author.
This week has become less about government censorship and more about the spirit of the law. Our cultural understanding of free expression is often limited by our personal feelings towards the subject in question. Consider the recent outcries for banning “hate speech” on college campuses. If we allow our feelings to challenge our liberties, we can no longer protect anyone’s right to free speech.
So in the spirit of Judge Woolsey, I say embrace the other side. Take the time to research and learn about such content that raises our hackles and makes our skin crawl. And if you cannot see your way to accepting such media, then you will have, at the least, the knowledge necessary to justify your opposition.
There is no need (and no cause) to silence expressions that we find detestable. Simply take your time to educate others so that they may also make an informed decision. If enough people agree with you, your boycott may work and the market will adjust itself to limit such ideas. If not, then you have gained new perspective on the world and our liberties will only grow stronger. So, read the book. You may even enjoy it.
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