The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia created the nation’s first censorship board 61 years ago today

This is the first in an occasional series exploring the history of state policy.

Sixty-one years ago, months before Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine, Georgia created the nation’s first censorship board.

The vote was unanimous. The Georgia State Assembly approved House Bill 247 on Feb. 19, 1953, with no dissent, establishing the Georgia Literature Commission. Despite being born into controversy, it lived on for 20 years surviving legal and legislative challenges until the administration of then-Gov. Jimmy Carter defanged it, setting off its slow death.

There was confusion from the start over how to define the commission, according to a fantastic 2000 article detailing its rise and fall by Georgia State University Professor Greg Lisby. From the beginning, the commission’s chairman, a pastor at Atlanta’s Morningside Baptist Church who would lead the body for its entire run, insisted it was nothing but a study committee to provide support to local prosecutors enforcing the state’s obscenity laws.

“We believe we are the first state to create such a commission, and we have been contacted by every other state in the nation about what we are doing,” James P. Wesberry, commission chairman, told the The News And Courier in 1965. “We are not censors, but we serve to spotlight the problem in Georgia and put it in the hands of a judge and jury,” he said. But from the beginning even the state’s attorney general described it as a censorship board.

Early on, officials struggled to define exactly what constitutes obscenity in literature, eventually developing an eight-part test. Publishers and distributors tried to appease the board, with some even voluntarily withdrawing books. Hefner even wrote them, thanking them for differentiating Playboy from the other “gross and tasteless ‘girlie’ magazines.”

But it wasn’t until 1957 that the commission issued its first ruling against a book, “God’s Little Acre” by Erskine Caldwell, a popular X-rated comic novel written decades earlier about the decline of a  poor rural family in Georgia. Despite the commission’s recommendation of prosecution, the state judicial system never acted on it.

The next year, the state legislature gave the commission more power, broadening its scope to include periodicals and giving it subpoena powers and the ability to issue court injunctions to stop material from being sold. It would use those injunctive powers later that year to stop the Plaza News Company from distributing Reese Hayes’s book “Turbulent Daughters” and, yet later, Betty Short’s “Rambling Maids.”

“By April 1960, distributors had agreed to pull more than 119 publications from sale to avoid such actions,” Libby writes in his review of the Commission’s history.

Throughout its history, the commission suffered legal and legislative challenges, including a 1962 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that the obscenity law was discriminatory. The state legislature responded in 1963 and 1964 by strengthening the commission, tweaking its mandate and definition to stay in line with the ruling.

But the tide had begun to turn. Lawmakers started worrying the commission was encroaching on the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned some of its bans. The commission suffered a serious setback when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its ban — upheld by the state high court — of Alan Marshall’s “Sin Whisper.” The ruling included no explanation, creating confusion about the commission’s constitutionality leading to a significant decrease in its productivity and effectiveness.

After years of support, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter cut the commission’s annual appropriation by about 20 percent in 1971, while simultaneously fighting a public battle against pornography. His administration then implemented zero-based budgeting, in which each governmental organization had to justify itself, which had become increasingly hard to do for the commission.

Carter dismissed it as a “mere complaint department,” and it was slowly allowed to die. Wesberry’s term was allowed to end without renewal on April 1, 1973. As the last living member of the commission, that effectively marked its end, though it lived on for a few more months.

This post was based on old newspaper articles and a review of the commission’s history written by  Georgia State University Professor Greg Lisby for The Georgia Historical Quarterly. His 25-page article is excellent and fascinating and can be read here after registering for a free account. It’s worth it.