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4.6: Obscenity and Extreme Violence

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    Roth v. United States (1957)

    354 U.S. 476 (1957)

    [consolidated with Alberts v. California 354 U.S. 476]

    Majority: Brennan, joined by Frankfurter, Burton, Clark, and Whittaker
    Concurrence: Warren
    Dissent: Harlan
    Dissent: Douglas, joined by Black

    Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The constitutionality of a criminal obscenity statute is the question in each of these cases. In Roth, the primary constitutional question is whether the federal obscenity statute violates the provision of the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. …”

    Roth conducted a business in New York in the publication and sale of books, photographs and magazines. He used circulars and advertising matter to solicit sales. He was convicted by a jury in the District Court for the Southern District of New York upon 4 counts of a 26-count indictment charging him with mailing obscene circulars and advertising, and an obscene book, in violation of the federal obscenity statute. His conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. We granted certiorari.

    Alberts conducted a mail-order business from Los Angeles. He was convicted by the Judge of the Municipal Court of the Beverly Hills Judicial District (having waived a jury trial) under a misdemeanor complaint which charged him with lewdly keeping for sale obscene and indecent books, and with writing, composing and publishing an obscene advertisement of them, in violation of the California Penal Code. The conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Department of the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Los Angeles. We noted probable jurisdiction.

    The dispositive question is whether obscenity is utterance within the area of protected speech and press. Although this is the first time the question has been squarely presented to this Court, either under the First Amendment or under the Fourteenth Amendment, expressions found in numerous opinions indicate that this Court has always assumed that obscenity is not protected by the freedoms of speech and press.

    … In light of this history, it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance. This phrasing did not prevent this Court from concluding that libelous utterances are not within the area of constitutionally protected speech. At the time of the adoption of the First Amendment, obscenity law was not as fully developed as libel law, but there is sufficiently contemporaneous evidence to show that obscenity, too, was outside the protection intended for speech and press.

    … All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—have the full protection of the guaranties, unless excludable because they encroach upon the limited area of more important interests. But implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance. This rejection for that reason is mirrored in the universal judgment that obscenity should be restrained, reflected in the international agreement of over 50 nations, in the obscenity laws of all of the 48 States, and in the 20 obscenity laws enacted by the Congress from 1842 to 1956. This is the same judgment expressed by this Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942):

    ” … There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene. … It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. …” (Emphasis added.)

    We hold that obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press.

    It is strenuously urged that these obscenity statutes offend the constitutional guaranties because they punish incitation to impure sexual thoughts, not shown to be related to any overt antisocial conduct which is or may be incited in the persons stimulated to such thoughts. In Roth, the trial judge instructed the jury: “The words `obscene, lewd and lascivious’ as used in the law, signify that form of immorality which has relation to sexual impurity and has a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.” (Emphasis added.) … It is insisted that the constitutional guaranties are violated because convictions may be had without proof either that obscene material will perceptibly create a clear and present danger of anti-social conduct, or will probably induce its recipients to such conduct. But, in light of our holding that obscenity is not protected speech, the complete answer to this argument is in the holding of this Court in Beauharnais v. Illinois, supra:

    “Libelous utterances not being within the area of constitutionally protected speech, it is unnecessary, either for us or for the State courts, to consider the issues behind the phrase ‘clear and present danger.’ Certainly no one would contend that obscene speech, for example, may be punished only upon a showing of such circumstances. Libel, as we have seen, is in the same class.”

    However, sex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e. g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press …

    The fundamental freedoms of speech and press have contributed greatly to the development and well-being of our free society and are indispensable to its continued growth. Ceaseless vigilance is the watchword to prevent their erosion by Congress or by the States. The door barring federal and state intrusion into this area cannot be left ajar; it must be kept tightly closed and opened only the slightest crack necessary to prevent encroachment upon more important interests. It is therefore vital that the standards for judging obscenity safeguard the protection of freedom of speech and press for material which does not treat sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest.

    … in Roth, the trial judge instructed the jury as follows:

    ” … The test is not whether it would arouse sexual desires or sexual impure thoughts in those comprising a particular segment of the community, the young, the immature or the highly prudish or would leave another segment, the scientific or highly educated or the so-called worldly-wise and sophisticated indifferent and unmoved. …”

    “. …”

    “The test in each case is the effect of the book, picture or publication considered as a whole, not upon any particular class, but upon all those whom it is likely to reach. In other words, you determine its impact upon the average person in the community. The books, pictures and circulars must be judged as a whole, in their entire context, and you are not to consider detached or separate portions in reaching a conclusion. You judge the circulars, pictures and publications which have been put in evidence by present-day standards of the community. You may ask yourselves does it offend the common conscience of the community by present-day standards.”

    “. …”

    “In this case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you and you alone are the exclusive judges of what the common conscience of the community is, and in determining that conscience you are to consider the community as a whole, young and old, educated and uneducated, the religious and the irreligious—men, women and children.”

    It is argued that the statutes do not provide reasonably ascertainable standards of guilt and therefore violate the constitutional requirements of due process … The thrust of the argument is that these words are not sufficiently precise because they do not mean the same thing to all people, all the time, everywhere.

    Many decisions have recognized that these terms of obscenity statutes are not precise. This Court, however, has consistently held that lack of precision is not itself offensive to the requirements of due process.” … [T]he Constitution does not require impossible standards”; all that is required is that the language “conveys sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practices. …”

    In summary, then, we hold that these statutes, applied according to the proper standard for judging obscenity, do not offend constitutional safeguards against convictions based upon protected material, or fail to give men in acting adequate notice of what is prohibited.

    We therefore hold that the federal obscenity statute punishing the use of the mails for obscene material is a proper exercise of the postal power delegated to Congress by Art. I, § 8, cl. 7 …

    The judgments are

    Affirmed.


    Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

    378 U.S. 184 (1964)

    Vote: 6-3
    Plurality: Brennan, joined by Goldberg
    Concurrence: Black, joined by Douglas
    Concurrence: Stewart
    Concurrence: White
    Dissent: Warren, joined by Clark
    Dissent: Harlan

    Justice Brennan announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which Justice Goldberg joins.

    Appellant, Nico Jacobellis, manager of a motion picture theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was convicted on two counts of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film in violation of Ohio Revised Code (1963 Supp.) § 2905.34.1 He was fined $500 on the first count and $2,000 on the second, and was sentenced to the workhouse if the fines were not paid. His conviction, by a court of three judges upon waiver of trial by jury, was affirmed by an intermediate appellate court, and by the Supreme Court of Ohio. We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal, and subsequently restored the case to the calendar for reargument. The dispositive question is whether the state courts properly found that the motion picture involved, a French film called ‘Les Amants’ (‘The Lovers’), was obscene and hence not entitled to the protection for free expression that is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. We conclude that the film is not obscene and that the judgment must accordingly be reversed.

    Motion pictures are within the ambit of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. But, in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, we held that obscenity is not subject to those guarantees. Application of an obscenity law to suppress a motion picture thus requires ascertainment of the “dim and uncertain line” that often separates obscenity from constitutionally protected expression. Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, (1963). It has been suggested that this is a task in which our Court need not involve itself. We are told that the determination whether a particular motion picture, book, or other work of expression is obscene can be treated as a purely factual judgment on which a jury’s verdict is all but conclusive, or that, in any event, the decision can be left essentially to state and lower federal courts, with this Court exercising only a limited review such as that needed to determine whether the ruling below is supported by “sufficient evidence.” The suggestion is appealing, since it would lift from our shoulders a difficult, recurring, and unpleasant task. But we cannot accept it. Such an abnegation of judicial supervision in this field would be inconsistent with our duty to uphold the constitutional guarantees. Since it is only “obscenity” that is excluded from the constitutional protection, the question whether a particular work is obscene necessarily implicates an issue of constitutional law. Such an issue, we think, must ultimately be decided by this Court. Our duty admits of no “substitute for facing up to the tough individual problems of constitutional judgment involved in every obscenity case.”

    In other areas involving constitutional rights under the Due Process Clause, the Court has consistently recognized its duty to apply the applicable rules of law upon the basis of an independent review of the facts of each case …

    We cannot understand why the Court’s duty should be any different in the present case, where Jacobellis has been subjected to a criminal conviction for disseminating a work of expression, and is challenging that conviction as a deprivation of rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments …

    The question of the proper standard for making this determination has been the subject of much discussion and controversy since our decision in Roth seven years ago. Recognizing that the test for obscenity enunciated there —

    “whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest,”

    is not perfect, we think any substitute would raise equally difficult problems, and we therefore adhere to that standard. We would reiterate, however, our recognition in Roth that obscenity is excluded from the constitutional protection only because it is “utterly without redeeming social importance,” and that

    “[t]he portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press.”

    It follows that material dealing with sex in a manner that advocates ideas, Kingsley Int’l Pictures Corp. v. Regents, (1959) or that has literary or scientific or artistic value or any other form of social importance, may not be branded as obscenity and denied the constitutional protection …

    It has been suggested that the “contemporary community standards” aspect of the Roth test implies a determination of the constitutional question of obscenity in each case by the standards of the particular local community from which the case arises … to “the community” in the sense of “society at large; … the public, or people in general.” …

    We do not see how any “local” definition of the “community” could properly be employed in delineating the area of expression that is protected by the Federal Constitution.

    We recognize the legitimate and indeed exigent interest of States and localities throughout the Nation in preventing the dissemination of material deemed harmful to children. But that interest does not justify a total suppression of such material, the effect of which would be to “reduce the adult population … to reading only what is fit for children.” Butler v. Michigan, (1957). State and local authorities might well consider whether their objectives in this area would be better served by laws aimed specifically at preventing distribution of objectionable material to children, rather than at totally prohibiting its dissemination. Since the present conviction is based upon exhibition of the film to the public at large, and not upon its exhibition to children, the judgment must be reviewed under the strict standard applicable in determining the scope of the expression that is protected by the Constitution.

    We have applied that standard to the motion picture in question.”The Lovers” involves a woman bored with her life and marriage who abandons her husband and family for a young archaeologist with whom she has suddenly fallen in love. There is an explicit love scene in the last reel of the film, and the State’s objections are based almost entirely upon that scene. The film was favorably reviewed in a number of national publications, although disparaged in others, and was rated by at least two critics of national stature among the best films of the year in which it was produced. It was shown in approximately 100 of the larger cities in the United States, including Columbus and Toledo, Ohio. We have viewed the film, in the light of the record made in the trial court, and we conclude that it is not obscene within the standards enunciated in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, which we reaffirm here.

    Reversed.

    Justice Stewart, concurring.

    It is possible to read the Court’s opinion in Roth v. United States in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court’s decisions since Roth and Alberts that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

    The Chief Justice, with whom Mr. Justice Clark joins, dissenting.

    In this and other cases in this area of the law, which are coming to us in ever-increasing numbers, we are faced with the resolution of rights basic both to individuals and to society as a whole. Specifically, we are called upon to reconcile the right of the Nation and of the States to maintain a decent society and, on the other hand, the right of individuals to express themselves freely in accordance with the guarantees of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Although the Federal Government and virtually every State has had laws proscribing obscenity since the Union was formed, and although this Court has recently decided that obscenity is not within the protection of the First Amendment, neither courts nor legislatures have been able to evolve a truly satisfactory definition of obscenity. In other areas of the law, terms like “negligence,” although in common use for centuries, have been difficult to define except in the most general manner. Yet the courts have been able to function in such areas with a reasonable degree of efficiency. The obscenity problem, however, is aggravated by the fact that it involves the area of public expression, an area in which a broad range of freedom is vital to our society and is constitutionally protected.

    … For all the sound and fury that the Roth test has generated, it has not been proved unsound, and I believe that we should try to live with it—at least until a more satisfactory definition is evolved. No government—be it federal, state, or local—should be forced to choose between repressing all material, including that within the realm of decency, and allowing unrestrained license to publish any material, no matter how vile. There must be a rule of reason in this as in other areas of the law and we have attempted in the Roth case to provide such a rule.

    … We are told that only ‘hard core pornography’ should be denied the protection of the First Amendment. But who can define ‘hard core pornography’ with any greater clarity than ‘obscenity’? And even if we were to retreat to that position, we would soon be faced with the need to define that term just as we now are faced with the need to define ‘obscenity.’ Meanwhile, those who profit from the commercial exploitation of obscenity would continue to ply their trade unmolested.

    … In light of the foregoing, I would reiterate my acceptance of the rule of the Roth case: Material is obscene and not constitutionally protected against regulation and proscription if ‘to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.’ I would commit the enforcement of this rule to the appropriate state and federal courts, and I would accept their judgments made pursuant to the Roth rule, limiting myself to a consideration only of whether there is sufficient evidence in the record upon which a finding of obscenity could be made. If there is no evidence in the record upon which such a finding could be made, obviously the material involved cannot be held obscene. But since a mere modicum of evidence may satisfy a ‘no evidence’ standard, I am unwilling to give the important constitutional right of free expression such limited protection. However, protection of society’s right to maintain its moral fiber and the effective administration of justice require that this Court not establish itself as an ultimate censor, in each case reading the entire record, viewing the accused material, and making an independent de novo judgment on the question of obscenity. Therefore, once a finding of obscenity has been made below under a proper application of the Roth test, I would apply a ‘sufficient evidence’ standard of review—requiring something more than merely any evidence but something less than ‘substantial evidence on the record (including the allegedly obscene material) as a whole.’ his is the only reasonable way I can see to obviate the necessity of this Court’s sitting as the Super Censor of all the obscenity purveyed throughout the Nation.


    Miller v. California (1973)

    413 U.S. 15 (1973)

    Vote: 5-4
    Majority: Burger, joined by White, Blackmun, Powell and Rehnquist
    Dissent: Douglas
    Dissent: Brennan, joined by Stewart and Marshall

    Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This is one of a group of “obscenity-pornography” cases being reviewed by the Court in a re-examination of standards enunciated in earlier cases involving what Mr. Justice Harlan called “the intractable obscenity problem.”

    Appellant conducted a mass mailing campaign to advertise the sale of illustrated books, euphemistically called “adult” material. After a jury trial, he was convicted of violating California Penal Code § 311.2 (a), a misdemeanor, by knowingly distributing obscene matter, and the Appellate Department, Superior Court of California, County of Orange, summarily affirmed the judgment without opinion. Appellant’s conviction was specifically based on his conduct in causing five unsolicited advertising brochures to be sent through the mail in an envelope addressed to a restaurant in Newport Beach, California. The envelope was opened by the manager of the restaurant and his mother. They had not requested the brochures; they complained to the police.

    The brochures advertise four books entitled “Intercourse,” “Man-Woman,” “Sex Orgies Illustrated,” and “An Illustrated History of Pornography,” and a film entitled “Marital Intercourse.” While the brochures contain some descriptive printed material, primarily they consist of pictures and drawings very explicitly depicting men and women in groups of two or more engaging in a variety of sexual activities, with genitals often prominently displayed.

    This case involves the application of a State’s criminal obscenity statute to a situation in which sexually explicit materials have been thrust by aggressive sales action upon unwilling recipients who had in no way indicated any desire to receive such materials. This Court has recognized that the States have a legitimate interest in prohibiting dissemination or exhibition of obscene material when the mode of dissemination carries with it a significant danger of offending the sensibilities of unwilling recipients or of exposure to juveniles. It is in this context that we are called on to define the standards which must be used to identify obscene material that a State may regulate without infringing on the First Amendment as applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.

    The dissent of Justice Brennan reviews the background of the obscenity problem, but since the Court now undertakes to formulate standards more concrete than those in the past, it is useful for us to focus on two of the landmark cases in the somewhat tortured history of the Court’s obscenity decisions. In Roth v. United States, (1957), the Court sustained a conviction under a federal statute punishing the mailing of “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy …” materials. The key to that holding was the Court’s rejection of the claim that obscene materials were protected by the First Amendment …

    Nine years later, in Memoirs v. Massachusetts, (1966), the Court veered sharply away from the Roth concept and, with only three Justices in the plurality opinion, articulated a new test of obscenity. The plurality held that under the Roth definition

    “as elaborated in subsequent cases, three elements must coalesce: it must be established that (a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters; and (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value.”

    The sharpness of the break with Roth, represented by the third element of the Memoirs test and emphasized by Justice White’s dissent, was further underscored when the Memoirs plurality went on to state:

    “The Supreme Judicial Court erred in holding that a book need not be `unqualifiedly worthless before it can be deemed obscene.’ A book cannot be proscribed unless it is found to be utterly without redeeming social value.” (emphasis in original).

    While Roth presumed “obscenity” to be “utterly without redeeming social importance,” Memoirs required that to prove obscenity it must be affirmatively established that the material is “utterly without redeeming social value.” Thus, even as they repeated the words of Roth, the Memoirs plurality produced a drastically altered test that called on the prosecution to prove a negative, i.e., that the material was “utterly without redeeming social value”—a burden virtually impossible to discharge under our criminal standards of proof. Such considerations caused Justice Harlan [dissenting] to wonder if the “utterly without redeeming social value” test had any meaning at all.

    Apart from the initial formulation in the Roth case, no majority of the Court has at any given time been able to agree on a standard to determine what constitutes obscene, pornographic material subject to regulation under the States’ police power. This is not remarkable, for in the area of freedom of speech and press the courts must always remain sensitive to any infringement on genuinely serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific expression. This is an area in which there are few eternal verities.

    The case we now review was tried on the theory that the California Penal Code §311 approximately incorporates the three-stage Memoirs test. But now the Memoirs test has been abandoned as unworkable by its author, and no Member of the Court today supports the Memoirs formulation.

    This much has been categorically settled by the Court, that obscene material is unprotected by the First Amendment. We acknowledge, however, the inherent dangers of undertaking to regulate any form of expression. State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited. As a result, we now confine the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct. That conduct must be specifically defined by the applicable state law, as written or authoritatively construed. A state offense must also be limited to works which, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex, which portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

    The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value … If a state law that regulates obscene material is thus limited, as written or construed, the First Amendment values applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment are adequately protected by the ultimate power of appellate courts to conduct an independent review of constitutional claims when necessary.

    We emphasize that it is not our function to propose regulatory schemes for the States. That must await their concrete legislative efforts. It is possible, however, to give a few plain examples of what a state statute could define for regulation under part (b) of the standard announced in this opinion:

    (a) Patently offensive representations or descriptions of ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated.

    (b) Patently offensive representations or descriptions of masturbation, excretory functions, and lewd exhibition of the genitals.

    Sex and nudity may not be exploited without limit by films or pictures exhibited or sold in places of public accommodation any more than live sex and nudity can be exhibited or sold without limit in such public places. At a minimum, prurient, patently offensive depiction or description of sexual conduct must have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value to merit First Amendment protection. For example, medical books for the education of physicians and related personnel necessarily use graphic illustrations and descriptions of human anatomy. In resolving the inevitably sensitive questions of fact and law, we must continue to rely on the jury system, accompanied by the safeguards that judges, rules of evidence, presumption of innocence, and other protective features provide, as we do with rape, murder, and a host of other offenses against society and its individual members.

    … Under the holdings announced today, no one will be subject to prosecution for the sale or exposure of obscene materials unless these materials depict or describe patently offensive “hard core” sexual conduct specifically defined by the regulating state law, as written or construed. We are satisfied that these specific prerequisites will provide fair notice to a dealer in such materials that his public and commercial activities may bring prosecution. If the inability to define regulated materials with ultimate, god-like precision altogether removes the power of the States or the Congress to regulate, then “hard core” pornography may be exposed without limit to the juvenile, the passerby, and the consenting adult alike, as, indeed, Justice Douglas contends. In this belief, however, Justice Douglas now stands alone.

    … It is certainly true that the absence, since Roth, of a single majority view of this Court as to proper standards for testing obscenity has placed a strain on both state and federal courts. But today, for the first time since Roth was decided in 1957, a majority of this Court has agreed on concrete guidelines to isolate “hard core” pornography from expression protected by the First Amendment …

    This may not be an easy road, free from difficulty. But no amount of “fatigue” should lead us to adopt a convenient “institutional” rationale—an absolutist, “anything goes” view of the First Amendment—because it will lighten our burdens.” … Nor should we remedy “tension between state and federal courts” by arbitrarily depriving the States of a power reserved to them under the Constitution, a power which they have enjoyed and exercised continuously from before the adoption of the First Amendment to this day …

    Under a National Constitution, fundamental First Amendment limitations on the powers of the States do not vary from community to community, but this does not mean that there are, or should or can be, fixed, uniform national standards of precisely what appeals to the “prurient interest” or is “patently offensive.” These are essentially questions of fact, and our Nation is simply too big and too diverse for this Court to reasonably expect that such standards could be articulated for all 50 States in a single formulation, even assuming the prerequisite consensus exists. When triers of fact are asked to decide whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would consider certain materials “prurient,” it would be unrealistic to require that the answer be based on some abstract formulation. The adversary system, with lay jurors as the usual ultimate factfinders in criminal prosecutions, has historically permitted triers of fact to draw on the standards of their community, guided always by limiting instructions on the law. To require a State to structure obscenity proceedings around evidence of a national “community standard” would be an exercise in futility.

    As noted before, this case was tried on the theory that the California obscenity statute sought to incorporate the tripartite test of Memoirs. This, a “national” standard of First Amendment protection enumerated by a plurality of this Court, was correctly regarded at the time of trial as limiting state prosecution under the controlling case law. The jury, however, was explicitly instructed that, in determining whether the “dominant theme of the material as a whole … appeals to the prurient interest” and in determining whether the material “goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor and affronts contemporary community standards of decency,” it was to apply “contemporary community standards of the State of California.”

    During the trial, both the prosecution and the defense assumed that the relevant “community standards” in making the factual determination of obscenity were those of the State of California, not some hypothetical standard of the entire United States of America … On appeal to the Appellate Department, Superior Court of California, County of Orange, appellant for the first time contended that application of state, rather than national, standards violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

    We conclude that neither the State’s alleged failure to offer evidence of “national standards,” nor the trial court’s charge that the jury consider state community standards, were constitutional errors. Nothing in the First Amendment requires that a jury must consider hypothetical and unascertainable “national standards” when attempting to determine whether certain materials are obscene as a matter of fact …

    It is neither realistic nor constitutionally sound to read the First Amendment as requiring that the people of Maine or Mississippi accept public depiction of conduct found tolerable in Las Vegas, or New York City. People in different States vary in their tastes and attitudes, and this diversity is not to be strangled by the absolutism of imposed uniformity … We hold that the requirement that the jury evaluate the materials with reference to “contemporary standards of the State of California” serves this protective purpose and is constitutionally adequate.

    The dissenting Justices sound the alarm of repression. But, in our view, to equate the free and robust exchange of ideas and political debate with commercial exploitation of obscene material demeans the grand conception of the First Amendment and its high purposes in the historic struggle for freedom … The First Amendment protects works which, taken as a whole, have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value, regardless of whether the government or a majority of the people approve of the ideas these works represent … But the public portrayal of hard-core sexual conduct for its own sake, and for the ensuing commercial gain, is a different matter.

    There is no evidence, empirical or historical, that the stern 19th century American censorship of public distribution and display of material relating to sex in any way limited or affected expression of serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific ideas.

    … One can concede that the “sexual revolution” of recent years may have had useful byproducts in striking layers of prudery from a subject long irrationally kept from needed ventilation. But it does not follow that no regulation of patently offensive “hard core” materials is needed or permissible; civilized people do not allow unregulated access to heroin because it is a derivative of medicinal morphine.

    In sum, we (a) reaffirm the Roth holding that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment; (b) hold that such material can be regulated by the States, subject to the specific safeguards enunciated above, without a showing that the material is “utterly without redeeming social value”; and (c) hold that obscenity is to be determined by applying “contemporary community standards,” not “national standards.” The judgment of the Appellate Department of the Superior Court, Orange County, California, is vacated and the case remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the First Amendment standards established by this opinion.

    Vacated and remanded.


    New York v. Ferber (1982)

    458 U.S. 747 (1982)

    Vote: 9-0
    Majority: White, joined by Burger, Powell, Rehnquist, and O’Connor
    Concurrence: O’Connor
    Concurrence: Brennan, joined by Marshall
    Concurrence: Blackmun (in the result)
    Concurrence: Stevens

    Justice White Delivered the Opinion of the Court

    At issue in this case is the constitutionality of a New York criminal statute which prohibits persons from knowingly promoting sexual performances by children under the age of 16 by distributing material which depicts such performances.

    In recent years, the exploitive use of children in the production of pornography has become a serious national problem. The Federal Government and 47 States have sought to combat the problem with statutes specifically directed at the production of child pornography. At least half of such statutes do not require that the materials produced be legally obscene. Thirty-five States and the United States Congress have also passed legislation prohibiting the distribution of such materials; 20 States prohibit the distribution of material depicting children engaged in sexual conduct without requiring that the material be legally obscene.

    … At issue in this case is § 263.15, defining a class D felony:

    “A person is guilty of promoting a sexual performance by a child when, knowing the character and content thereof, he produces, directs or promotes any performance which includes sexual conduct by a child less than sixteen years of age.”

    To “promote” is also defined:

    “‘Promote’ means to procure, manufacture, issue, sell, give, provide, lend, mail, deliver, transfer, transmute, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit or advertise, or to offer or agree to do the same.”

    § 263.00(5).

    A companion provision bans only the knowing dissemination of obscene material. § 263.10.

    This case arose when Paul Ferber, the proprietor of a Manhattan bookstore specializing in sexually oriented products, sold two films to an undercover police officer. The films are devoted almost exclusively to depicting young boys masturbating. Ferber was indicted on two counts of violating § 263.10 and two counts of violating § 263.15, the two New York laws controlling dissemination of child pornography. After a jury trial, Ferber was acquitted of the two counts of promoting an obscene sexual performance, but found guilty of the two counts under § 263.15, which did not require proof that the films were obscene. Ferber’s convictions were affirmed without opinion by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court …

    The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that § 263.15 violated the First Amendment … The court began by noting that, in light of § 263.10’s explicit inclusion of an obscenity standard, § 263.15 could not be construed to include such a standard. Therefore,

    “the statute would … prohibit the promotion of materials which are traditionally entitled to constitutional protection from government interference under the First Amendment.” … Two judges dissented.

    We granted the State’s petition for certiorari, 454 U.S. 1052 (1981), presenting the single question:

    “To prevent the abuse of children who are made to engage in sexual conduct for commercial purposes, could the New York State Legislature, consistent with the First Amendment, prohibit the dissemination of material which shows children engaged in sexual conduct, regardless of whether such material is obscene?”

    The Court of Appeals proceeded on the assumption that the standard of obscenity incorporated in § 263.10, which follows the guidelines enunciated in Miller v. California, (1973), constitutes the appropriate line dividing protected from unprotected expression by which to measure a regulation directed at child pornography …

    The Court of Appeals’ assumption was not unreasonable in light of our decisions. This case, however, constitutes our first examination of a statute directed at and limited to depictions of sexual activity involving children. We believe our inquiry should begin with the question of whether a State has somewhat more freedom in proscribing works which portray sexual acts or lewd exhibitions of genitalia by children.

    … Throughout this period, we recognized “the inherent dangers of undertaking to regulate any form of expression.” Miller v. California, supra. Consequently, our difficulty was not only to assure that statutes designed to regulate obscene materials sufficiently defined what was prohibited, but also to devise substantive limits on what fell within the permissible scope of regulation.

    … Over the past decade, we have adhered to the guidelines expressed in Miller, which subsequently has been followed in the regulatory schemes of most States.

    The Miller standard, like its predecessors, was an accommodation between the State’s interests in protecting the “sensibilities of unwilling recipients” from exposure to pornographic material and the dangers of censorship inherent in unabashedly content-based laws. Like obscenity statutes, laws directed at the dissemination of child pornography run the risk of suppressing protected expression by allowing the hand of the censor to become unduly heavy. For the following reasons, however, we are persuaded that the States are entitled to greater leeway in the regulation of pornographic depictions of children.

    First. It is evident beyond the need for elaboration that a State’s interest in “safeguarding the physical and psychological wellbeing of a minor” is “compelling.” Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court,. (1982) … Accordingly, we have sustained legislation aimed at protecting the physical and emotional wellbeing of youth even when the laws have operated in the sensitive area of constitutionally protected rights …

    The prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of children constitutes a government objective of surpassing importance. The legislative findings accompanying passage of the New York laws reflect this concern:

    “[T]here has been a proliferation of exploitation of children as subjects in sexual performances. The care of children is a sacred trust and should not be abused by those who seek to profit through a commercial network based upon the exploitation of children. The public policy of the state demands the protection of children from exploitation through sexual performances.”

    1977 N.Y.Laws, ch. 910, § 1.

    We shall not second-guess this legislative judgment … Suffice it to say that virtually all of the States and the United States have passed legislation proscribing the production of or otherwise combating “child pornography.” The legislative judgment, as well as the judgment found in the relevant literature, is that the use of children as subjects of pornographic materials is harmful to the physiological, emotional, and mental health of the child. That judgment, we think, easily passes muster under the First Amendment.

    Second. The distribution of photographs and films depicting sexual activity by juveniles is intrinsically related to the sexual abuse of children … Thirty-five States and Congress have concluded that restraints on the distribution of pornographic materials are required in order to effectively combat the problem, and there is a body of literature and testimony to support these legislative conclusions …

    Respondent does not contend that the State is unjustified in pursuing those who distribute child pornography. Rather, he argues that it is enough for the State to prohibit the distribution of materials that are legally obscene under the Miller test. While some States may find that this approach properly accommodates its interests, it does not follow that the First Amendment prohibits a State from going further. The Miller standard, like all general definitions of what may be banned as obscene, does not reflect the State’s particular and more compelling interest in prosecuting those who promote the sexual exploitation of children. Thus, the question under the Miller test of whether a work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of the average person bears no connection to the issue of whether a child has been physically or psychologically harmed in the production of the work. Similarly, a sexually explicit depiction need not be “patently offensive” in order to have required the sexual exploitation of a child for its production. In addition, a work which, taken on the whole, contains serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value may nevertheless embody the hardest core of child pornography … We therefore cannot conclude that the Miller standard is a satisfactory solution to the child pornography problem.

    Third. The advertising and selling of child pornography provide an economic motive for, and are thus an integral part of, the production of such materials, an activity illegal throughout the Nation.

    … We note that, were the statutes outlawing the employment of children in these films and photographs fully effective, and the constitutionality of these laws has not been questioned, the First Amendment implications would be no greater than that presented by laws against distribution: enforceable production laws would leave no child pornography to be marketed.

    Fourth. The value of permitting live performances and photographic reproductions of children engaged in lewd sexual conduct is exceedingly modest, if not de minimis. We consider it unlikely that visual depictions of children performing sexual acts or lewdly exhibiting their genitals would often constitute an important and necessary part of a literary performance or scientific or educational work … Nor is there any question here of censoring a particular literary theme or portrayal of sexual activity. The First Amendment interest is limited to that of rendering the portrayal somewhat more “realistic” by utilizing or photographing children.

    Fifth. Recognizing and classifying child pornography as a category of material outside the protection of the First Amendment is not incompatible with our earlier decisions …

    The test for child pornography is separate from the obscenity standard enunciated in Miller, but may be compared to it for the purpose of clarity. The Miller formulation is adjusted in the following respects: a trier of fact need not find that the material appeals to the prurient interest of the average person; it is not required that sexual conduct portrayed be done so in a patently offensive manner; and the material at issue need not be considered as a whole. We note that the distribution of descriptions or other depictions of sexual conduct, not otherwise obscene, which do not involve live performance or photographic or other visual reproduction of live performances, retains First Amendment protection. As with obscenity laws, criminal responsibility may not be imposed without some element of scienter on the part of the defendant …

    Section 263.15’s prohibition incorporates a definition of sexual conduct that comports with the above-stated principles. The forbidden acts to be depicted are listed with sufficient precision and represent the kind of conduct that, if it were the theme of a work, could render it legally obscene …

    We hold that § 263.15 sufficiently describes a category of material the production and distribution of which is not entitled to First Amendment protection. It is therefore clear that there is nothing unconstitutionally “underinclusive” about a statute that singles out this category of material for proscription. It also follows that the State is not barred by the First Amendment from prohibiting the distribution of unprotected materials produced outside the State.

    It remains to address the claim that the New York statute is unconstitutionally overbroad because it would forbid the distribution of material with serious literary, scientific, or educational value or material which does not threaten the harms sought to be combated by the State. Respondent prevailed on that ground below, and it is to that issue that we now turn …

    … The scope of the First Amendment overbreadth doctrine, like most exceptions to established principles, must be carefully tied to the circumstances in which facial invalidation of a statute is truly warranted. Because of the wide-reaching effects of striking down a statute on its face at the request of one whose own conduct may be punished despite the First Amendment, we have recognized that the overbreadth doctrine is “strong medicine,” and have employed it with hesitation, and then “only as a last resort.” Broadrick. We have, in consequence, insisted that the overbreadth involved be “substantial” before the statute involved will be invalidated on its face.

    The requirement of substantial overbreadth is directly derived from the purpose and nature of the doctrine. While a sweeping statute, or one incapable of limitation, has the potential to repeatedly chill the exercise of expressive activity by many individuals, the extent of deterrence of protected speech can be expected to decrease with the declining reach of the regulation. This observation appears equally applicable to the publication of books and films as it is to activities, such as picketing or participation in election campaigns, which have previously been categorized as involving conduct plus speech. We see no appreciable difference between the position of a publisher or bookseller in doubt as to the reach of New York’s child pornography law and the situation faced by the Oklahoma state employees with respect to that State’s restriction on partisan political activity. Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that the bookseller, with an economic incentive to sell materials that may fall within the statute’s scope, may be less likely to be deterred than the employee who wishes to engage in political campaign activity …

    This requirement of substantial overbreadth may justifiably be applied to statutory challenges which arise in defense of a criminal prosecution as well as civil enforcement or actions seeking a declaratory judgment …

    Applying these principles, we hold that § 263.15 is not substantially overbroad. We consider this the paradigmatic case of a state statute whose legitimate reach dwarfs its arguably impermissible applications …

    The judgment of the New York Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    So ordered.

    Justice O’Connor, concurring.

    Although I join the Court’s opinion, I write separately to stress that the Court does not hold that New York must except “material with serious literary, scientific, or educational value,” ante at 458 U. S. 766, from its statute. The Court merely holds that, even if the First Amendment shelters such material, New York’s current statute is not sufficiently overbroad to support respondent’s facial attack. The compelling interests identified in today’s opinion, … suggest that the Constitution might, in fact, permit New York to ban knowing distribution of works depicting minors engaged in explicit sexual conduct, regardless of the social value of the depictions. …


    Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011)

    564 U.S. 786 (2011)

    Vote: 7-2
    Majority: Scalia, joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan
    Concurrence: Alito, joined by Roberts
    Dissent: Thomas
    Dissent: Breyer

    Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

    We consider whether a California law imposing restrictions on violent video games comports with the First Amendment.

    California Assembly Bill 1179 (2005), Cal. Civ. Code Ann. §§1746–1746.5 (West 2009) (Act), prohibits the sale or rental of “violent video games” to minors, and requires their packaging to be labeled “18.” The Act covers games “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are depicted” in a manner that “[a] reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors,” that is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors,” and that “causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” Violation of the Act is punishable by a civil fine of up to $1,000. Respondents, representing the video-game and software industries, brought a pre enforcement challenge to the Act in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. That court concluded that the Act violated the First Amendment and permanently enjoined its enforcement. The Court of Appeals affirmed and we granted certiorari.

    California correctly acknowledges that video games qualify for First Amendment protection. The Free Speech Clause exists principally to protect discourse on public matters, but we have long recognized that it is difficult to distinguish politics from entertainment, and dangerous to try … Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection. Under our Constitution, “esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature … are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.” United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. (2000) …

    The most basic of those principles is this: “[A]s a general matter, … government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (2002). There are of course exceptions …

    Last Term, in US v. Stevens, (2010), we held that new categories of unprotected speech may not be added to the list by a legislature that concludes certain speech is too harmful to be tolerated …

    That holding controls this case. As in Stevens, California has tried to make violent-speech regulation look like obscenity regulation by appending a saving clause required for the latter. That does not suffice. Our cases have been clear that the obscenity exception to the First Amendment does not cover whatever a legislature finds shocking, but only depictions of “sexual conduct,” Miller.

    Stevens was not the first time we have encountered and rejected a State’s attempt to shoehorn speech about violence into obscenity … Our opinion in Winters v NY (1948) … made clear that violence is not part of the obscenity that the Constitution permits to be regulated … Because speech about violence is not obscene, it is of no consequence that California’s statute mimics the New York statute regulating obscenity-for-minors that we upheld in Ginsberg v. New York (1968). That case approved a prohibition on the sale to minors of sexual material that would be obscene from the perspective of a child. We held that the legislature could “adjus[t] the definition of obscenity ‘to social realities by permitting the appeal of this type of material to be assessed in terms of the sexual interests … ’ of … minors.” And because “obscenity is not protected expression,” the New York statute could be sustained so long as the legislature’s judgment that the proscribed materials were harmful to children “was not irrational.”

    The California Act is something else entirely. It does not adjust the boundaries of an existing category of unprotected speech to ensure that a definition designed for adults is not uncritically applied to children. California does not argue that it is empowered to prohibit selling offensively violent works to adults—and it is wise not to, since that is but a hair’s breadth from the argument rejected in Stevens. Instead, it wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children.

    … California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.

    High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.

    This is not to say that minors’ consumption of violent entertainment has never encountered resistance. In the 1800’s, dime novels depicting crime and “penny dreadfuls” (named for their price and content) were blamed in some quarters for juvenile delinquency. When motion pictures came along, they became the villains instead … Many in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s blamed comic books for fostering a “preoccupation with violence and horror” among the young, leading to a rising juvenile crime rate. But efforts to convince Congress to restrict comic books failed. And, of course, after comic books came television and music lyrics.

    California claims that video games present special problems because they are “interactive,” in that the player participates in the violent action on screen and determines its outcome. The latter feature is nothing new: Since at least the publication of The Adventures of You: Sugarcane Island in 1969, young readers of choose-your-own adventure stories have been able to make decisions that determine the plot by following instructions about which page to turn to. As for the argument that video games enable participation in the violent action, that seems to us more a matter of degree than of kind …

    Justice Alito [concurring] has done considerable independent research to identify video games in which “the violence is astounding.” “Victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces. … Blood gushes, splatters, and pools.” Justice Alito recounts all these disgusting video games in order to disgust us—but disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression. And the same is true of Justice Alito’s description of those video games he has discovered that have a racial or ethnic motive for their violence—“ ‘ethnic cleansing’ [of] … African Americans, Latinos, or Jews.” To what end does he relate this? Does it somehow increase the “aggressiveness” that California wishes to suppress? Who knows? But it does arouse the reader’s ire, and the reader’s desire to put an end to this horrible message. Thus, ironically, Justice Alito’s argument highlights the precise danger posed by the California Act: that the ideas expressed by speech—whether it be violence, or gore, or racism—and not its objective effects, may be the real reason for governmental proscription.

    Because the Act imposes a restriction on the content of protected speech, it is invalid unless California can demonstrate that it passes strict scrutiny—that is, unless it is justified by a compelling government interest and is narrowly drawn to serve that interest. The State must specifically identify an “actual problem” in need of solving and the curtailment of free speech must be actually necessary to the solution. That is a demanding standard.”It is rare that a regulation restricting speech because of its content will ever be permissible.”

    California cannot meet that standard …

    The State’s evidence is not compelling …

    The Act is also seriously underinclusive in another respect—and a respect that renders irrelevant the contentions of the concurrence and the dissents that video games are qualitatively different from other portrayals of violence. The California Legislature is perfectly willing to leave this dangerous, mind-altering material in the hands of children so long as one parent (or even an aunt or uncle) says it’s OK. And there are not even any requirements as to how this parental or avuncular relationship is to be verified; apparently the child’s or putative parent’s, aunt’s, or uncle’s say-so suffices. That is not how one addresses a serious social problem …

    But leaving that aside, California cannot show that the Act’s restrictions meet a substantial need of parents who wish to restrict their children’s access to violent video games but cannot do so …

    And finally, the Act’s purported aid to parental authority is vastly overinclusive. Not all of the children who are forbidden to purchase violent video games on their own have parents who care whether they purchase violent video games. While some of the legislation’s effect may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want. This is not the narrow tailoring to “assisting parents” that restriction of First Amendment rights requires.

    California’s effort to regulate violent video games is the latest episode in a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors. While we have pointed out above that some of the evidence brought forward to support the harmfulness of video games is unpersuasive, we do not mean to demean or disparage the concerns that underlie the attempt to regulate them—concerns that may and doubtless do prompt a good deal of parental oversight. We have no business passing judgment on the view of the California Legislature that violent video games (or, for that matter, any other forms of speech) corrupt the young or harm their moral development. Our task is only to say whether or not such works constitute a “well-defined and narrowly limited clas[s] of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem,” Chaplinsky (the answer plainly is no); and if not, whether the regulation of such works is justified by that high degree of necessity we have described as a compelling state interest (it is not). Even where the protection of children is the object, the constitutional limits on governmental action apply.

    California’s legislation straddles the fence between (1) addressing a serious social problem and (2) helping concerned parents control their children. Both ends are legitimate, but when they affect First Amendment rights they must be pursued by means that are neither seriously underinclusive nor seriously overinclusive … As a means of protecting children from portrayals of violence, the legislation is seriously underinclusive, not only because it excludes portrayals other than video games, but also because it permits a parental or avuncular veto. And as a means of assisting concerned parents it is seriously overinclusive because it abridges the First Amendment rights of young people whose parents (and aunts and uncles) think violent video games are a harmless pastime. And the overbreadth in achieving one goal is not cured by the underbreadth in achieving the other. Legislation such as this, which is neither fish nor fowl, cannot survive strict scrutiny.

    We affirm the judgment below. It is so ordered.

    Justice Breyer, dissenting.

    … [T]he special First Amendment category I find relevant is … the category of “protection of children.” This Court has held that the “power of the state to control the conduct of children reaches beyond the scope of its authority over adults.” Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). And the “‘regulatio[n] of communication addressed to [children] need not conform to the requirements of the [F]irst [A]mendment in the same way as those applicable to adults.’ ” Ginsberg v. New York (1968) …

    In my view, California’s statute provides “fair notice of what is prohibited,” and consequently it is not impermissibly vague. Ginsberg explains why that is so. The Court there considered a New York law that forbade the sale to minors of a “picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, or similar visual representation or image of a person or portion of the human body which depicts nudity …,” that “predominately appeals to the prurient, shameful or morbid interest of minors,” and “is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors,” and “is utterly without redeeming social importance for minors.” This Court upheld the New York statute in Ginsberg

    Comparing the language of California’s statute with the language of New York’s statute it is difficult to find any vagueness-related difference. Why are the words “kill,” “maim,” and “dismember” any more difficult to understand than the word “nudity?” …

    The remainder of California’s definition copies, almost word for word, the language this Court used in Miller v. California (1973), in permitting a total ban on material that satisfied its definition (one enforced with criminal penalties) …

    Both the Miller standard and the law upheld in Ginsberg lack perfect clarity. But that fact reflects the difficulty of the Court’s long search for words capable of protecting expression without depriving the State of a legitimate constitutional power to regulate. As is well known, at one point Justice Stewart thought he could do no better in defining obscenity than, “I know it when I see it.” Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) (concurring opinion). And Justice Douglas dissented from Miller’s standard, which he thought was still too vague. Ultimately, however, this Court accepted the “community standards” tests used in Miller and Ginsberg. They reflect the fact that sometimes, even when a precise standard proves elusive, it is easy enough to identify instances that fall within a legitimate regulation. And they seek to draw a line, which, while favoring free expression, will nonetheless permit a legislature to find the words necessary to accomplish a legitimate constitutional objective …

    The upshot is that California’s statute, as applied to its heartland of applications (i.e., buyers under 17; extremely violent, realistic video games), imposes a restriction on speech that is modest at most. That restriction is justified by a compelling interest (supplementing parents’ efforts to prevent their children from purchasing potentially harmful violent, interactive material). And there is no equally effective, less restrictive alternative. California’s statute is consequently constitutional on its face—though litigants remain free to challenge the statute as applied in particular instances, including any effort by the State to apply it to minors aged 17.

    I add that the majority’s different conclusion creates a serious anomaly in First Amendment law. Ginsberg makes clear that a State can prohibit the sale to minors of depictions of nudity; today the Court makes clear that a State cannot prohibit the sale to minors of the most violent interactive video games. But what sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman—bound, gagged, tortured, and killed—is also topless?

    This anomaly is not compelled by the First Amendment. It disappears once one recognizes that extreme violence, where interactive, and without literary, artistic, or similar justification, can prove at least as, if not more, harmful to children as photographs of nudity. And the record here is more than adequate to support such a view. That is why I believe that Ginsberg controls the outcome here a fortiori. And it is why I believe California’s law is constitutional on its face …

    For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.



    4.6: Obscenity and Extreme Violence is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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