One hundred years ago on Sunday, a decision by a lowly New York court had the effect of banning James Joyce's Ulysses in the United States. In the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses, set on Sandymount Strand, Leopold Bloom masturbates as Gerty MacDowell lets him glimpse her legs. Serialised in The Little Review, a literary magazine, this caught the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The magazine's publishers were duly convicted of obscenity and fined $50; no other legitimate American publisher would risk taking on Ulysses for more than a decade.
In the meantime, mores were changing. In 1932, Random House imported a single copy of Ulysses and arranged for US Customs to seize it. The resulting court case ended in a famous victory when Judge John Munro Woolsey, who had spent months studying the novel, found that Ulysses was not obscene. Random House were free to import it; and, by implication, to print it.
It is easy to laugh, now, at the prudishness of Joyce's moralising persecutors; it is less easy to apply a lesson from their eventual defeat. That lesson might seem to be that, as Judge Woolsey put it during the latter case, ideas "ought to take their chances in the marketplace"; but the idea of untrammelled freedom of expression has come under new strain in this age of social media, exemplified in the belated, clumsy attempts of the platforms to censor Donald Trump.
The Woolsey decision was less about the principle of freedom of expression than about a changing understanding of the balance to be struck between that freedom and the constraints that were acknowledged to be necessary upon it. Woolsey found that, although the effect of Ulysses on the reader could be “emetic”, or vomit-inducing, “nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac”; had it done so, it would still have been obscene. A hundred years from now, perhaps people will look back and laugh at our fumbling attempts to censor online speech. We can only hope that we won’t have to wait a further decade to find the right balance between constraint and freedom.