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It has been a while since I have been to a state fair. From the few memories that I can recollect, there were lots of games, inflatable and fried food (my favorite being funnel cakes). However, I don’t remember there ever being an advocacy group. This could have to do with my child interests being preoccupied by greasy foods and stuffed animal prizes, but my research today has led me occupied otherwise.

In 1941, a New York State fair was held in Syracuse. The fair lasted from August 24th to September 1st. At this fair, the New York State Federation for Planned Parenthood was to hold an exhibit titled, Every Baby Wanted & Loved.

CharlesPoletti

Charles Poletti, governor of New York State 1942 (Photographer unknown).

Now as you may have noticed I wrote, was to hold. This is because the then acting governor (Governor Herbert Lehman was on vacation), Charles Poletti, barred the exhibit from the fair.

On what grounds?

Well, two of Poletti’s statements were repeatedly published in the New York Times.

First: The exhibit was “calculated to contravene or change the declared policy of the State,” which held that “State buildings and funds should not be used to propagandize against any existing State law.”[1]

Second: “The exhibit would be offensive to a large portion of those attending the Fair.”[2]

The view that disseminating of information on birth control is detrimental to the State has been expressed by a majority of the people of New York, speaking through their elected representatives in the Legislature.That law has stood on the statute books for many years. I submit that the use of the fair operated by the State for the enjoyment of all its people, for an exhibit that would be offensive to a large portion of those attending it would be unconscionable.

(Quote by Poletti published in the New York Times, “Poletti Upholds Fair Exhibit Ban,”  Aug. 29, 1941.)

Sanger, after hearing these statements, urged the public to demand a reconsideration of Poletti’s actions. In regards to Poletti’s statement that the exhibit would “contravene or change the declared policy of the State,” Sanger claimed “on the face of it the statement is absurd,” further demonstrating “how misinformed Mr. Poletti [was] in this field of public health that Poletti.”[3]

A further statement was published from Margaret Sanger concerning the “large portion of those attending the fair”:

We have been informed that Mr. Poletti’s stand was taken as a result of protests by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.   If this be so, we protest as undemocratic and inimical to public welfare the fact that pressure of a minority religious group can effectively bar the majority of the citizens of New York State from information they desire on a subject considered of sufficient importance as a health measure to be included in the state public health programs of North and South Carolina and of Alabama, and in 209 health department programs in 39 states.

(Statement by Margaret Sanger released by BCFA in New York World, August 28, 1941.)
PotelliSangerArticle

Newspaper clipping from “Our Town” describing birth control exhibits banned at the Mineola State Fair following Poletti’s ruling in Syracuse, 1941 (Our Town).

The New York State Federation of Planned Parenthood was taken aback. They sent several letters to Poletti, urging him to understand that the exhibit wasn’t opposing existing State legislation.

A letter addressed to Poletti from board members of the NYS Federation of Planned Parenthood responded to Poletti’s statements.

First: Before the Fair opened, the Federation had received all necessary approval from authorities concerned. Poletti’s banishment of the exhibit happened at the “eleventh hour.” The Federation goes on to explain that Poletti’s actions were responding to pressures from those that opposed “planned parenthood” through birth control.

This, the Federation claimed, was “unfair and [could] hardly constitute the basis for a settled policy.” [4]

Second: In regards to the materials that were to be distributed at the Fair, the Federation acknowledged that no New York State law was to be violated.

Now, it is necessary to understand which law they were referring to.

According to the statute of law 1142, no information regarding birth control could be disseminated for any reason. However, there was kind of a loop hole. This is what the Federation used to support their argument.

Statute 1145 stated that only physicians could give information concerning birth control in cases of curing or preventing disease.

Using this knowledge, the Federation claimed that the misunderstanding “rested on the conflict in concepts between the declared policy of the State and the policy of the Federation for Planned Parenthood.”[5]

So what was this “conflict in concepts”?

BCExhibitPanel

Planned Parenthood Federation Panel, “Every Baby Wanted and Loved,” displayed at the exhibit, 1941 (Library of Congress)

The Federation of Planned Parenthood claimed that it bases its policies on the concept of maternal and child health and family welfare. It does so through legally working through physicians. This, in reference to the 1145 statute, maintains that the work of the Federation, along with the exhibit, is in conjunction with New York State law.

Now for the response to Poletti’s second statement:

First, the Federation simply undermines Poletti’s statement concerning public schools/public places. To do this, the Federation cites the example of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU was permitted to have a booth and distribute literature at the Syracuse State Fair. The letter states that “it can hardly be maintained that the WCTU does not desire to change State law.”[6]

The Federation continues by referring to Poletti’s statement that the exhibit would be offensive to a “large portion” of attendees.

Wait. How could you hold a state fair with organizations from a variety of interest groups without offending one person? I mean even the clouds of powdered sugar drifting above my paper plate of fried batter could prove offensive.

This is exactly what the Federation said. Well, not the bit about fried foods.

If there were to be a blanket ban on everything that could be offensive to a considerable number of the audience, then the exhibits would be reduced to “such a commonplace level of general agreement as to be of little public interest.”[7]

To further counter Poletti’s statements, the Federation includes references to several state fairs, such as those in Rhinebeck, Kingston, Mineola and Buffalo, that had Planned Parenthood exhibits.

Did this response change Poletti’s decision?

Unfortunately, no.

An article was even published in the August 28th edition of York World reporting that Poletti and his wife had stayed at the Onondaga Hotel where the exhibit was displayed in the hotel lobby. The article claims that he “studiously avoided putting his eyes on the three-panel exhibit.”[8]

This was a case of the challenge to civil liberties. The Planned Parenthood Federation wasn’t challenging the law, rather voicing its opinion. As the letter concludes, “it seems to us [] that the public authorities better serve the purposes of democracy by encouraging on public property the expression of opinions on public issues.”[9]


[1] MSM S19:0965.  Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Exhibit on Birth Control is Banned,” Syracuse Post-Standard, Aug. 29, 1941.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] York World, August 28, 1941.

[9] MSM S19:0965.  Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

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