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After 145 years of injustice, FIRE seeks pardon for publisher jailed for mailing ‘obscene’ literature

DM Bennet Pardon and Joe Biden

WATCH: The Comstock Act and the trial of newspaper publisher D.M. Bennett.

After 145 years of injustice, FIRE seeks pardon for publisher jailed for mailing ‘obscene’ literature

  • In 1879, D.M. Bennett was arrested under the Comstock Act for mailing an anti-marriage tract titled “Cupid’s Yokes” and sentenced to 13 months of hard labor.
  • First Amendment expert who secured posthumous pardon for Lenny Bruce seeks justice from President Joe Biden for another wronged American.

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 17, 2024 — In 1879, publisher D.M. Bennett was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 13 months of hard labor in a New York prison. His crime? Supposedly, it was for mailing a pamphlet.

Officially, Bennett was prosecuted for disseminating  a copy of an anti-marriage tract titled “Cupid’s Yokes,” which was considered obscene and therefore illegal under the Comstock Act. But the pamphlet was by no means “obscene,” even by the standards of the time. In reality, Bennett was targeted because he actively campaigned for the repeal of the law in the pages of his freethought publication, The Truth Seeker. 

His prosecution and incarceration were cruel and unconstitutional, and justice demands D.M. Bennett’s good name be cleared. That’s why the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a petition on behalf of current “Truth Seeker” publisher Roderick Bradford, calling on President Joe Biden to posthumously pardon Bennett. FIRE’s chief counsel Bob Corn-Revere, who previously secured the posthumous pardon of comedian Lenny Bruce, is leading the charge.

“A pardon for Bennett is long overdue since his trial, conviction, and imprisonment were unjust on so many levels,” says Bradford. “His imprisonment ruined his health and probably hastened his death. But that was the price he was willing to pay in his fight for free speech and freedom of expression.”


Congress passed the Comstock Act and signed it into law in 1873 after intense lobbying by its namesake, an anti-smut vigilante named Anthony Comstock. The professional anti-vice crusader would fondly call it, “My law.” It was framed as legislation against obscenity, but its vague and expansive wording led to its use in prosecuting literature, art, and scientific and medical texts, and even opponents of the law itself, such as Bennett — which Comstock himself had the authority to enforce.

Developments in constitutional law through the 20th century  rendered the Comstock Act all but dead — until now. Recent cases in Texas and even the Supreme Court have threatened to resurrect it, putting our First Amendment freedoms at risk.

While a posthumous pardon is too late to help Bennett himself, there are other reasons why it is important. First, it corrects the historical wrong of Bennett’s prosecution and conviction. Second, and most importantly, it makes an official promise that the unlawful actions taken against people like Bennett will not be repeated in the future.

“Posthumous pardons are rare, and should be,” says FIRE’s chief counsel Bob Corn-Revere, who drafted the petition to President Biden. “But they do happen in the right circumstances. Twenty years ago I wrote a petition that secured a posthumous pardon for the comedian Lenny Bruce — the first such pardon in New York history.”  He added: “That pardon has served as an ongoing commitment that Americans should not face the prospect of  jail for ‘word crimes.’”

The same principle applies here.  “Bennett was convicted 145 years ago, but there is never a wrong time to do the right thing,” Corn-Revere said.  “A posthumous pardon is not just about the past — it’s a promise for the future and a celebration of our hard-won freedoms.” 

For that reason, President Biden should grant the pardon without delay. 

“The Comstock Act’s legacy of censorship and unjust prosecution will continue so long as its wrongs remain unpardoned and its illegitimacy remains constitutionally unresolved,” said Corn-Revere. “It’s time for President Biden to pardon D.M. Bennett for his conviction under this unjust law, and for Congress to kill this zombie law for good.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.


Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

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