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Book by Professor Donna Dennis Explores Origins of Obscenity Law and the Pornography Business in 19th-Century

April 06, 2009 – 

Nineteenth-century New York was a time of flourishing commerce and creative entrepreneurism – and erotica dealers were as innovative as other ambitious industrialists. In her new book Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Harvard University Press), Professor Donna Dennis of Rutgers School of Law–Newark traces the emergence of an indecent print trade and the corresponding attempts to regulate it. She demonstrates how savvy entrepreneurs remained one step ahead of law enforcement, often expanding the market for salacious materials that prohibitionists aimed to thwart.

Donna Dennis bookLicentious Gotham has been described by Robert Post of Yale Law School as “original and illuminating – essential reading for those who wish to understand the law in action.” The book reflects several of the author’s scholarly interests, including the connections between law and capitalism, the history of morals regulation, and the relationship between law and popular culture. She provides a comprehensive analysis of legal responses to pornography, beginning with a New York obscenity prosecution in 1824 and ending with enforcement of the federal Comstock Act of 1873. Invariably, the effect of these legal maneuvers was to open up new opportunities for resourceful entrepreneurs. “This history,” writes Professor Dennis, “testifies to the persistent contradictions that early efforts to censor sexual expression in the name of moral necessity engendered – paradoxes that offer lessons for our own time.”

Professor Dennis received a B.A. from Yale College, an M.A. in history from Yale University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law and Policy Review and executive editor of AIDS and the Law. In 2005, she received a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, where she taught American legal history, was elected to the Fellowship of Woodrow Wilson Scholars, and was awarded a Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities. Before joining the Rutgers faculty, she practiced law in New York at Debevoise & Plimpton; with the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office; and as a partner at Richard Spears Kibbe & Orbe, where she specialized in corporate governance and securities litigation and enforcement. 

Professor Dennis is the author of several articles in the area of American legal history; law, gender, and sexuality; and corporate law. She has been an invited speaker at the Yale Legal History Forum, the UCLA Legal History Workshop, and the Law and Humanities Junior Scholar Workshop, and has presented papers to the American Society for Legal History, the American Studies Association, and the Law and Society Association, among others. Professor of Law and Justice Frederick W. Hall Scholar at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, she teaches Business Associations, Securities and Market Regulation, Corporate Social Responsibility, American Legal History, and Gender and Law in American History.