Georgia Literature Commission
Georgia launched its first major campaign against obscene literature in 1953, when the General Assembly unanimously voted to establish the Georgia Literature Commission. The onset of the paperback book revolution in the years after World War II (1941-45), the rising popularity of adult magazines, and the introduction of Playboy magazine in the United States led the legislature to create the commission, consisting of three members who would meet monthly to investigate literature that they suspected to be "detrimental to the morals of the citizens of Georgia." If the commission determined something to be obscene, it had the power to inhibit distribution by notifying the distributor and then, thirty days later, recommending prosecution by the proper prosecuting attorney. Governor Herman Talmadge appointed Atlanta minister James P. Wesberry, Royston newspaper publisher Hubert L. Dyar, and Greensboro theater owner William R. Boswell to serve four-year terms.
Most of the commission's early work was through a program of mutual cooperation with publishers, distributors, and retailers, although the commission became increasingly ineffective in its dealing with magazines, as it could prohibit distribution of a particular issue it found to be obscene but not any future issue. In late 1956 four out-of-state publishing companies sued the commission in federal district court on the grounds that the statute establishing the commission was unconstitutional. A special three-judge appellate panel ruled that the statute as correctly construed did not raise a constitutional question. Because the court concluded that the commission did not have any powers of censorship—the commission could only recommend to distributors that a publication not be sold or to prosecuting attorneys that a distributor be prosecuted—the suit was subsequently dismissed.
Through 1967 the commission was required to take legal action in only six instances. The beginning of the end of the commission's efforts came on August 19, 1966, when the commission sought and received a declaratory judgment in Muscogee County Superior Court that Alan Marshall's Sin Whisper (1965) was obscene. The Georgia Supreme Court also sided with the commission, concluding that the book was "filthy and disgusting." The unanimous opinion continued, "Further description is not necessary, and we do not wish to sully the pages of the reported opinions of this court with it." The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the judgment without comment in a memorandum decision without any explanation of why the book was not obscene, without any comment about the standards applied by Georgia courts determining it to be obscene, and without any ruling on the constitutionality of the commission itself. Other books chosen for review by the commission were Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre (1933), J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951), Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), George H. Smith's Strip Artist (1964), and John Dexter's Lust Avenger (1965).
The commission ceased operations sometime after 1973, a victim of Governor Jimmy Carter's zero-based budgeting system, which required state agencies to justify their existence each fiscal year. Coupled with his and successive governors' failure to appoint replacements for the two commission members who died that year, the agency was thereafter unable to conduct business.
Gregory C. Lisby, "'Trying to Define What May Be Indefinable': The Georgia Literature Commission, 1953-1973," Georgia Historical Quarterly 84 (spring 2000): 72-97.
Gregory C. Lisby, Georgia State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.