ACLU-MO History Spotlight: Comic Book Ordinance 

Comic Book Ordinance, 1956

Fearing that comic books encouraged juvenile delinquency, in 1956 the city of St. Louis passed Bill 553, making it illegal to sell publications showing “scandals, whoring, lechery, assignations, intrigues between men and women, and immoral conduct of persons.” St. Louis County passed a similar law later that same year.  

Covers of comic books Authentic Police Cases, Strange Worlds, Jann of the Jungle

Early 1950s comic books.
From the Center for the Humanities Collection (mghl00016), Dowd Modern Graphic History Library.

Pointing out the value of free speech, the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee first tried to discourage officials from passing the ordinance with a strongly worded letter. This letter read, in part:

“For 177 years in this country we have left the selection of what to read, and what not to read, up to each individual. In the case of minor children, that determination has been the prerogative of their parents or their guardians. We have not needed an agency of the sate, not even a distinguished committee of citizens selected by our mayor, to tell us what we should read…. I will admit we have run risks by doing this.  Whenever there is a choice between good and bad, or between better and worse, there is always an element of risk in permitting anyone to make that choice. After all he might make the wrong one. Taking this risk, however, has payed off.  Our country and our city have certainly prospered by letting their citizens determine for themselves what they consider worthy and good. … It is by our mistakes, as well as our successes, that we grow in wisdom and understanding.  If America, in the future, is to have the same able, self-reliant citizenship we have had in the past, we must continue to let our people choose for themselves. We can not shift that responsibility to an agency of the government.  Of course, crime comics and those depicting brutality and sadism are a problem for our community. But this is a problem parents, acting in the American tradition, can solve for themselves.” — St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee, March 31, 1955.

Read the full text of this two page letter from Anton Niemeyer of the St. Louis Civil Liberties’ legislative committee to the Board of Aldermen.

Once enacted, the new laws were rarely enforced, thanks to several St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee members, who joined the “citizen literature review boards and spoke up any time an action would infringe upon free speech rights.  

The city’s law was formally repealed in 1994. The county’s “Advisory Commission on the Control of Obscenity” was deemed inactive in 2013. 

More

Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent. (Rinehart, 1954). With new introduction by James E. Reibman (New York : Main Road Books, Inc., 2004.)


ACLU-MO @ 100

This post is part of a series in recognition of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri’s centennial year (1920-2020). Read more stories at: https://library.wustl.edu/tag/ACLU-MO@100/

If you have a question about this post or other topics related to St. Louis history, I can be reached at mrectenwald@wustl.edu or on Twitter: @mrectenwald.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.