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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.
A similar federal act (Sect. 245) of 1909 applied to delivery by interstate "express" or any other common carrier (such as railroad), rather than delivery by the U.S. Post Office. In addition to these federal laws, about half of the states enacted laws related to the federal Comstock laws. These state laws are considered by women's rights activist Mary Dennett to also be "Comstock laws". The laws were named after their chief proponent, U.S. Postal Inspector and anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock. Comstock received a commission from the Postmaster General to serve as a special agent for the U.S. Post Office Department.
In Washington, D.C., where the federal government had direct jurisdiction, another Comstock act (Sect. 312) also made it illegal (punishable by up to five years at hard labor), to sell, lend, or give away any "obscene" publication, or article used for contraception or abortion. Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1922 forbade the importation of any contraceptive information or means.
Numerous failed attempts were made to repeal or modify these laws, and many of them (or portions of them) were declared unconstitutional. In a 1919 issue of the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Judge J. C. Ruppenthal, after reviewing the various laws (especially state laws) called the set of acts "haphazard and capricious" and lacking "any clear, broad, well-defined principle or purpose".
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