In February 1866, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) of New York's executive committee privately distributed a report that was written by Cephas Brainerd and Robert McBurney entitled, "A Memorandum Respecting New-York as a Field for Moral and Christian Effort Among Young Men." This memorandum linked the main message of the YMCA to facts and figures that were drawn from the census, tax data, and licensing reports. All of this data was used to support the idea that many of the younger, more unsupervised members of the society had more than enough free time in the evenings to spend in billiard saloons, gambling halls, porter houses, and houses of prostitution and assignation.
The 1866 memorandum supported a plan to construct a centrally located building to better serve the younger men of New York. Not only was the building to support the spiritual, mental, and social well-being of the young men, it was also suggested to benefit their physical condition. However, the memorandum was also used as a "call to action" to investigate whether or not a law was in place to reprimand and confiscate "obscene" literature. After conferring with a district attorney, a committee was organized to write up a bill to be pushed through the New York State legislature. In 1868, the bill was passed; however, it was not as strong as the association would have liked it to be. After the passing of the bill, the YMCA appointed a committee to oversee the enforcement of the law. This law included the important power of search and seizure which authorized magistrates to issue warrants that allowed police officers "to search for, seize and take possession of such obscene and indecent books, papers, articles and things" and hand them over to the district attorney. If the indicted party ended up being found guilty, the materials that were confiscated in the raid were destroyed.
According to Paul R. Abramson, the widespread availability of pornography during the American Civil War (1861–1865) gave rise to an anti-pornography movement, culminating in the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873, but which also dealt with birth control and abortion issues. A major supporter and active persecutor for the moral purposes of the Comstock laws was the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, led by Comstock.
The following passage is the original Section 148 of the 1872 Amendment "An Act to revise, consolidate, and amend the Statutes relating to the Post-office Department," before it was changed by the parent act of the Comstock Laws, Section 211 of the Federal Criminal Code, in 1873. (United States, Congress, "An Act to Revise, Consolidate, and Amend the Statutes Relating to the Post-Office Department." An Act to Revise, Consolidate, and Amend the Statutes Relating to the Post-Office Department, pp. 302–302.)
The Comstock laws are a set of federal acts passed by the United States Congress under the Grant administration along with related state laws. The "parent" act (Sect. 211) was passed on March 3, 1873, as the Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. This Act criminalized any use of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items: obscenity, contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys, personal letters with any sexual content or information, or any information regarding the above items.
Three years after the enactment of the federal law, a petition was circulated by the National Liberal League for its repeal in 1876, garnering between 40,000 and 70,000 signatures. Although the press of the country favored repeal, their efforts were impeded when Comstock showed samples of pornographic material to congressmen who were serving on the same committee which the repeal act had been referred to. Comstock claimed that the pamphlets he had shared, a "collection of smutty circulars describing sex depravity", had been distributed by mail to youths and other persons.
In March 1879, the National Defense Association submitted a letter of affidavits to Samuel Sullivan Cox, a Democratic New York State Representative, for review with the Committee on Post Office and Post Roads. The National Defense Association had been established shortly after the Comstock Laws were enacted in order to combat the resulting loss of civil liberties and restrictions on freedom of the press, and to preserve access to works of art or literature which were deemed obscene under the Comstock Act.
After this failure to repeal, there was no concerted effort to change the laws until the start of the birth control movement in the United States in 1914 led by Margaret Sanger. Between 1917 and 1925 Bills were introduced in California (1917), New York (1917, 1921,3,4,5), Connecticut (1923, 1925), and New Jersey (1925) to make the anti-birth control parts of the state laws less restrictive. In both California and Connecticut, the anti-birth control part of the law would be simply eliminated which in Connecticut would mean that its outlawing of contraception would be revoked. All these state attempts at change failed to come to a vote so no change happened.
Comstock derived his full-time salary from the vice society. At the same time, he was able to hold a federal commission that allowed him to secure warrants for arrests and take and destroy publications and other materials. Therefore, New York, as well as the federal government, gave him most of the responsibility to implement moral censorship. They entrusted that responsibility to Comstock for forty-two years until his death in 1915. Over that period of time, he filled the two positions, one in the Post Office and the other in the New York vice society.
In 1915, architect William Sanger was charged under the New York law against disseminating contraceptive information. His wife Margaret Sanger was similarly charged in 1915 for her work The Woman Rebel. Sanger circulated this work through the U.S. postal service, effectively violating the Comstock Law. On appeal, her conviction was reversed on the grounds that contraceptive devices could legally be promoted for the cure and prevention of disease.
There were also failed attempts to eliminate the restrictions on birth control from the federal laws, the first starting in 1919 where the bill's supposed sponsor failed to introduce the bill. In 1923 a bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee (of Congress). While it was thought that the majority of this committee favored the bill, they evaded voting on it. There were also more attempts at change in the 1920s.
The Comstock laws banned distribution of sex education information, based on the premise that it was obscene and led to promiscuous behavior Mary Ware Dennett was fined $300 in 1928, for distributing a pamphlet containing sex education material. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), led by Morris Ernst, appealed her conviction and won a reversal, in which judge Learned Hand ruled that the pamphlet's main purpose was to "promote understanding".
In 1932, Sanger arranged for a shipment of diaphragms to be mailed from Japan to a sympathetic doctor in New York City. When U.S. customs confiscated the package as illegal contraceptive devices, Sanger helped file a lawsuit. In 1936, a federal appeals court ruled in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients.
Father Charles Coughlin, a famous "radio priest", argued before a congressional committee in 1934 that even use of contraception by a married couple was wrong. He characterized such non-productive sex as "legalized prostitution." There was heckling from the audience, and one woman called out to Coughlin, "You're ridiculous."
In 1957, Samuel Roth, who ran a literary business in New York City, was charged with distributing "obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy" materials through the mail, advertising and selling a publication called American Aphrodite ("A Quarterly for the Fancy-Free"). The publication contained literary erotica and nude photography.
Major parts of the Comstock Acts hinge on definitions, particularly of obscenity. Though the courts originally adopted the British Hicklin test, in 1957 an American test was put into place in Roth v. United States, in which it was determined that obscenity was material whose "dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest" to the "average person, applying contemporary community standards," and was, "utterly without redeeming social importance."
The Comstock Law was terminated in 1957, just before the Roth v. United States court case, but it defined obscenity laws as anything that appealed to the prurient interest of the consumer. In a similar case, Alberts v. California, David Alberts ran a mail-order business from Los Angeles and was convicted under a Californian statute for publishing pictures of "nude and scantily-clad women". The Supreme Court confirmed the conviction and affirmed the Roth test.
The restrictions on birth control in the Comstock laws were effectively rendered null and void by Supreme Court decisions Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972). Furthermore Congress removed the restrictions on contraception in 1971 but let the rest of the Comstock law stand.
After the June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the enforceability of the Comstock laws became the subject of legal disputes. In April 2023, a district court judged ruled in the case Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the Comstock Act made mailing of abortifacients illegal, though this order conflicted with that of another court.