On This Day: “The Open Forum”, ACLU, Los Angeles, 4 May 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the current political climate, there is contentious debate about such issues as the work of Planned Parenthood, the limits of free speech, racial questions, the moral and ethical implications of capital punishment and the role of government in the exercise of civil liberties.

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On this day, 4 May 1929, nearly ninety years ago, “The Open Forum,” the newspaper of the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) featured articles, letters and editorials related to these questions and it is fascinating to read the publication and then connect the content to current views.

The ACLU, aligned in its early years with left-leaning organizations, was formed in 1920 during the height of the Red Scare, when anti-Communist agitation raged across the United States.  Conservative movements during the 1920s were a foil for the ACLU in the areas outlined above and beyond.

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Culled from the Homestead’s collection, which has 18 issues from the 1920s and 1930s, this edition of “The Open Forum” features several pieces related to birth control and the public dissemination of material about it.

For example, Mary Ware Dennett of New York was convicted in federal court on the charge of “sending obscene matter through the mails,” a tactic used to ban books, as well as pamphlets and other printed works.  Her brochure, “The Sex Side of Life,” was written in 1918 for her two sons, aged 11 and 14, and which was reprinted by medical organizations and distributed by schools, youth organizations and other entities.  An appeal was to be filed soon by Dennett’s attorney, who cited the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in his explanation that only in the Tennessee town that hosted the trial could Dennett’s case make sense.

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Elsewhere, a letter to the editor of the publication by Carl Rave talked about his situation, in which he was jailed for selling “Family Limitation,” a pamphlet by the noted birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger.  Rave pointed out that his prosecution was not under the Birth Control statute of the state, but for the obscenity law, as with Dennett.  He wrote that, because it was a misdemeanor in a county court, there was no appeal and he was forced to serve a sentence of three months in jail and a $100 fine.  Rave also observed that just recently a University of California professor advocated “compulsory birth control” yet still had his job, while Rave’s position in a shipyard was lost.

One small article referred to an unidentified Socialist Party candidate for a board of education election, probably for Los Angeles City Schools, though this is unstated, who “is a very bright, educated Negro.”  The piece observed that the candidate stated at a meeting that “he strongly opposed separate schools . . . [and] would not acknowledge the fact that one race will be dominated to its disadvantage by the other, where two quite different races are inhabiting the same territory.”

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With regards to capital punishment, another short piece by P.D. Noel indicated that “one of the greatest criminologists in the State,” who was not identified, wrote him concerning the effectiveness of the death penalty, stating, “in this field, as in most others where the administration of the criminal law is concerned, it is largely a matter of guesswork.”  Moreover, the expert went on, “it seems to be a field in which everyone assumes that his guess is as good as any other person’s guess” and addressing the issue is handled “without any sort of adequate fact finding or comparison.”

Free speech was the topic of a news item from New York City, where it was stated that the city’s superintendent of schools prevented, at the eleventh hour, Roger Baldwin, an ACLU director, from speaking to a high school audience on the topic.  Despite approval from the school’s principal after a teacher arranged for the talk, the superintendent evidently stated that Baldwin was not an appropriate speaker to the students.  This seems reminiscent to an extent of the recent controversies over conservative speakers, like Ann Coulter, being prevented from presenting their views to college audiences.  In fact, Coulter has been publicly defended by the ACLU.

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Upton Sinclair, a contributing editor to “The Open Forum,” submitted a letter offering the use of his 1928 work “Boston,” what he called a “documentary novel”, as the basis for a mock trial and a play.   His book was based on the famous Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1921, in which the Italian-American anarchist were convicted of an armed robbery and two murders and then executed in the electric chair six years later.

In a nod to local theatrical works, Sinclair claimed a play about the trial could become a tradition like “the Mission Play out here in California.”  The Mission Play was avidly supported by Walter P. Temple, who was , with Henry Huntington, one of the major donors to the playhouse still being used for performances in San Gabriel.

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More material touched upon Prohibition (a letter writer called the social legislation “just as intemperate as drunkenness”); recent statements by President Herbert Hoover  about “the high state of criminal conditions in the United States” (which can be compared to those of our current president) bringing the rejoinder that conservatism and attacks against liberals lead to a “disrespect for law and justice;” and the acquittal of a Socialist Labor Party member charged with “handing out copies of the party platform to Mexicans following a meeting near the Plaza” without a license, for which he spent two days in jail and denied bail.

Other contributing editors besides Sinclair, who ran a failed campaign for governor of California in 1934, included Kate Crane Gartz, heiress to the Crane plumbing fortune, who lived in Altadena and was a Socialist; Fanny Bixby Spencer, granddaughter of Jotham Bixby, and who was born in the Rancho Los Cerritos adobe at Long Beach built by Jonathan Temple; journalist Lew Head; and Noel, a businessmen who ran for political office several times under the Socialist Party banner.  The publication’s editor was Clinton J. Taft, the director of the regional branch of the ACLU for many years.

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Future posts here will highlight some of the other issues of “The Open Forum” published in 1929, so look for more to come!


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