86th Anniversary of the Woolsey Ruling


December 6 marks the anniversary of one of the most influential rulings for both First Amendment activists and Joyceans alike. On this day in 1933, Judge John Munro Woolsey of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York lifted the U.S. Customs ban on Ulysses.   

In 1920, the joint editors of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were charged with obscenity for the serialized publication of Ulysses. In 1921, Ulysses was found to be obscene, and it was subsequently banned from publication in, as well as importation into, the United States. Ulysses would remain under a U.S. Customs ban until 1932, when Random House, which had the rights to publish Ulysses in America, and Morris Ernst, a prominent civil-rights attorney, imported a copy of Ulysses from France and demanded that it be seized. The seizure of the book resulted in Woolsey’s famous ruling in the 1933 case, “United States of America vs. One Book called ‘Ulysses’,” and is widely viewed as laying the groundwork for the publication of Random House’s 1934 edition of Ulysses, which even used Woolsey’s ruling as a piece of front matter.

As part of the anniversary of this monumental ruling, Project MUSE is making Kevin Birmingham’s article, “The Prestige of the Law: Revisiting Obscenity Law and Judge Woolsey’s Ulysses Decision,” freely accessible and downloadable for the public from 12/6/19 until 12/13/19:
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/589943. When asked for comment on the decision, Project MUSE Marketing Manager Abe Novick, stated: “We set out to amplify our publishers’ content to a broad spectrum of MUSE followers and especially when it aligns with historical occasions. Sometimes, those events are still all too relevant today.”

Dr. Birmingham’s article, which was originally published in JJQ 50.4, offers a much more substantial explanation of the events surrounding the case, as well as an exploration into Woolsey’s contributions to American jurisprudence.