WHAT IS MAILABLE ?
The ruling of the assistant attorney general by which the carefully edited report of the vice commission is held nonmailable ought not to close the incident.
Section 211 of the federal criminal code of 1909 is a very drastic prohibition covering, it would seem, every conceivable case within its intention. But that this intention ever included official documents is preposterous.
The published edition of the vice report discloses its character on its title page. Its sponsors, the vice commission officially appointed by the mayor of the city of Chicago, are enumerated on the next page, and a preface sets forth fully the history, purposes, and character of the work done by the commission and summarize in the pages following.
The scientific character of the volume is patent. The responsibility of its publishers and the purpose of its distribution, a carefully selective distribution, are obvious. The chance that it would be misplaced and misused is negligible.
There is, in short, no reason whatsoever in fact why this public document should not pass through the mails in the existing circumstances. The literal application of the statute is stupid, and if it is tried and upheld in the court, the section should be amended so as to permit all documents of such character to be mailed. There are passages of the Bible that come within the literal interpretation of section 211. Is the Bible mailable?
But this ruling does not stand by itself. It is one of many rulings by the postoffice department which indicate an un-American bureaucratic rigidity and stupidity, if not worse. It is a serious sign of social degeneration when a people will not jealously guard every liberty of expression and every effort at enlightenment.
The postoffice hitherto has signalized itself by ruling out the pamphlets of obscure extremists or radical thinkers upon our social problems. Because these men were without influence and because American public opinion has failed to see whither such obscure oppressions tend, they have had no recourse. But the refusal of the vice report should teach us. Here is not obscure pamphlet, but an official report, approved by clergymen, lawyers, and citizens of the highest standing.
If we are to have censorship in America let us face what it means, and let us see that intelligent opinion and not the benighted brain of a politician-office holder or the mechanical judgment of a bureau chief shall decide what may pass current.
The vice commission, which now has been incorporated and made permanent as a voluntary association, could not do a better service than to fight this matter to the highest court.