Law and History Review


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

Laura M. Weinrib c1

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.

(Online publication April 26 2012)



Laura M. Weinrib is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School <>. She thanks Deborah Becher, Margot Canaday, Owen Fiss, Risa Goluboff, Robert Gordon, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Linda Kerber, Andrew Koppelman, David Rabban, Gautham Rao, Daniel Rodgers, Kim Lane Scheppele, Christine Stansell, Geoffrey Stone, Barbara Young Welke, and, especially, Hendrik Hartog for their helpful comments and suggestions. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association and Research Committee on Sociology of Law, the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Legal History, and the New York University Law School Legal History Colloquium. The project was supported by a grant from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin.