Postal Censorship and Surveillance: A Timeline

The government's long and shameful history of intercepting people's letters



A year before independence, the Continental Congress creates the Postal Service—not as a government agency, but as one of several new independent alternatives to the British postal system. One advantage: This allows American dissidents to communicate without the authorities intercepting their letters.


Southern mobs seize and burn abolitionist material sent through the mail. The postmaster general refuses to intervene, establishing a de facto policy of permitting the censorship of such literature in the slave states.


The libertarian abolitionist Lysander Spooner establishes the private American Letter Mail Co. The government reacts by outlawing it, and in 1851 the experiment ends.


The Civil War begins, and both the Union and the Confederacy adopt their own forms of postal censorship. The postmaster general spends a year refusing to deliver papers deemed disloyal to the Union cause.


The Comstock Act makes it illegal to knowingly mail or receive any "filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character," as well as any contraceptives, any abortifacients, or any information about acquiring or using contraceptives or abortifacients.


The Supreme Court upholds the government's right to bar "circulars concerning lotteries" from the mail—and, provided it has a warrant, to open and inspect packages to find such material.


Police arrest the libertarian journalists Moses Harman, Edwin C. Walker, and George Harman for publishing and mailing a feminist argument against marital rape. The author's description of such an assault is deemed obscene under the Comstock Act.


After the U.S. enters World War I, the Wilson administration cracks down on anti-war and anti-draft literature. In the case of the anarchist magazine Mother Earth, the government doesn't just bar the material from the mail—it arrests editor Emma Goldman for "conspiracy to induce persons not to register" for the draft, imprisons her, and eventually deports her.


The government intercepts the international correspondence of tax resister Vivien Kellems—a prominent critic of the Roosevelt administration—and leaks it to columnist Drew Pearson and Rep. John M. Coffee (D–Wash.). Coffee quotes from it on the House floor while accusing Kellems of subversion.


The CIA starts reading correspondence between people in the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The covert program quickly extends to a much larger watchlist, with the agency illegally opening more than 13,000 letters a year until the operation ends in 1973.


As part of its campaign against the underground press, the FBI considers a scheme to spray copies of The Black Panther with a chemical called Skatole before the issues are shipped to distributors, thus giving them "a most offensive odor." The bureau drops that particular plan but finds other ways to harass alternative papers using the mails.


In the wake of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, the government creates the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking system to collect the information on the exterior of virtually everything mailed in the United States. One cybersecurity specialist later sums up the program for The New York Times: "Let's record everyone's mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with."

NEXT: Brickbat: Naked and Afraid

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  1. “The covert program quickly extends to a much larger watchlist, with the agency illegally opening more than 13,000 letters a year until the operation ends in 1973”

    Yes, ends…….

    1. When they figored out how to read the mail without opening it, duh.

      1. You blow air inside, insert fiberglass imaging tool in a gap and the entire content is as easily readable as if flat on a table. If the top is craftily sealed, poke a thumbnail into a fold at either end and insert imaging cable through a small tear. That was before Bush/Bush Kreigswaffen expeditions. The anthrax “unequal but apposite” retaliation may have made X-raying and neutron activation all the more easier to fund, since force-initiating politicians were directly targeted. Remember this when next you have a chance to vote against the initiation of force.

  2. Comstock act eh. Pretty sure Hank will be here to flesh out the details.

    1. Is he a Comstocker?

      1. Pruient interest of yours?

    2. Pretty sure he’s saying: “Told you so.”

      I’m still waiting for “Libertarian spoiler votes” to make everything all better, though. There were less this past Election that even in previous Elections.

      And 50 years is long enough for a political party and its ideology to change a nation and a world, so obviously somebody’s not doing something right.

  3. We really need to know first, is Trump for or against this today? Because a ton of commenters here will then follow suit.

    1. Yeah, like when Trump first restricted travel to and from high COVID areas and the TDS crowd lambasted him for being xenophobic.

      1. Where in the world would folks get the general idea that Trump might be xenophobic? It’s truly a deranged mystery…

        1. Probably from some mediocre Americans.

      2. Drumpf’s draconian immigration restrictions certainly contributed to this country’s (except for blue states like NY) disastrous pandemic response.

        Just think of all the highly skilled Mexican doctors who wanted to cross the border and help our overwhelmed hospitals. Instead they were thrown into literal concentration camps.


    2. Well you’re here to fluff the left and democrats as a paid poster or just a pathetic Tony sock. Either way you’re a joke.

  4. They missed an important and costly program. After the Anthrax scares, the post office began sending all government correspondence to a facility in Ohio to be blasted with radiation to kill any anthrax spores that may lurk inside. It is outrageously expensive and slows correspondence and packages. Anthrax hasn’t been sent through the mail since 2001, but they will continue to spend billions to protect one or two government workers from harm.

  5. Reason’s really been going postal this week.

  6. Thank god the government makes sure I can’t get or send things that might be bad for me or the collective greater good, that greater good determined by whatever faction currently holds power, or the sanctity of the government itself.

    Now for that Facebook thing…

  7. failed to mention all mail leaving the U.S. and coming to the U.S. during WWII was inspected

    1. That and Dick and Arline Feynman toying with the censors at Los Alamos. And then there was Yossarian’s censoring of mail off the coast of Italy in World War Catch-22. Butcha can’t have everything… where would you put it?

  8. Good timeline of 4th amendment abuses

    Question. Since the 4th amendment – as a means of stopping those abuses – only applies to gummint not to private sector, how would privatizing the PO improve this?

  9. Another conspicuously brilliant article by Jesse. Note the thick slices of Grade-A factual content swimming in gravy thickened by the kind of spicy terseness obtainable only through careful trimming. Gourmet reporting!

  10. The postal service, are they still a thing for anything other than a few bills and junk mail? That’s truly shocking.

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