The Post Office pays a visit

Sam Smith – Government censorship was never much of a problem for us. Other publications, however, did not fare as well. In B.W. (Before Web) the Post Office was the most powerful prude around. As a young radio reporter in 1959, I interviewed the Assistant Postmaster General in his office on the subject of obscenity, a space grandly baroque enough to have pleased a top official of the Mussolini regime. He guided me from his enormous desk to some comfortable chairs in a windowed corner for the interview. On the floor, randomly tossed in a large scattered pile, was the most magnificent collection of sex magazines I had ever seen. I wondered but did not ask why, given the hazard he told me they presented, he got to read them and I did not.

Thirteen years later, in 1972, I was visited by one Howard Roberts, a postal inspector, carrying the current copy of another local paper, The Daily Rag. As I later explained in a letter to an official of the ACLU:

“Roberts informed me that he was delivering my copy of the Rag, but that the Postal Service considered the cover obscene and that he was asking that I refuse the publication and return it to him. Naturally I was titillated by this strange proposal, but upon viewing the cover found it to contain only a dowdy cartoon lady with mammary glands bulbous but properly covered. She was wearing a button that read ‘Fuck the Food Tax.'”

“I told Roberts no at some length, reminding him of existing legislation that adequately provided for those who wished to refuse mail . . . I’m afraid I was angry and did most of the talking, cowing Roberts sufficiently that he refused to answer any of my subsequent questions. He said that since I wouldn’t refuse the publication he wasn’t going to tell me anything more . . . He departed, leaving me with my copy of the Rag. He still, as I recall, had two or three other copies with him. Incidentally, Jean Lewton, associate editor of the Gazette, was in the room during the discussion. Roberts carefully shielded the offending publication from her view.”

In short, the Postal Service was seriously proposing criminal prosecution not only of the Rag, but of those who read it. It was a classic example of the First Amendment problem Lenny Bruce had raised: “If I can’t say ‘fuck’ then I can’t say, ‘fuck the government.’ I called the Rag and other media and after a story or two ran and the ACLU got involved, the Post Office backed off and ever since the capital has been saying “fuck” without fear of criminal sanction

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