Roth v. United States

354 U.S. 476
Roth v.United States
Argued: April 22, 1957
Decided: June 24, 1957


No. 61:

[Syllabus from pages 476-478 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Stanley Fleishman, Hollywood, Cal., for appellant Alberts.

Mr. Fred N. Whichello, Los Angeles, Cal., and Clarence A. Linn, Asst. Atty. Gen. of California, San Francisco, Cal., for appellee State of California.

No. 582:

Mr. David von G. Albrecht, New York City, and O. John Rogge, Washington, D.C., for petitioner Roth.

Mr. Roger D. Fisher, Washington, D.C., for the United States.

[Amicus Curiae Information from page 478 intentionally omitted]

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Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK concurs, dissenting.


When we sustain these convictions, we make the legality of a publication turn on the purity of thought which a book or tract instills in the mind of the reader. I do not think we can approve that standard and be faithful to the command of the First Amendment, which by its terms is a restraint on Congress and which by the Fourteenth is a restraint on the States.


In the Roth case the trial judge charged the jury that the statutory words ‘obscene, lewd and lascivious’ describe ‘that form of immorality which has relation to sexual impurity and has a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.’ He stated that the term ‘filthy’ in the statute pertains ‘to that sort of treatment of sexual matters in such a vulgar and indecent way, so that it tends to arouse a feeling of disgust and revulsion.’ (237 F.2d 799.) He went on to say that the material ‘must be calculated to corrupt and debauch the minds and morals’ of ‘the average person in the community’ not those of any particular class. ‘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 presentday standards.’


The trial judge who, sitting without a jury, heard the Alberts case and the appellate court that sustained the judgment of conviction, took California’s definition of ‘obscenity’ from People v. Wepplo, 78 Cal.App.2d Supp. 959, 961, 178 P.2d 853, 855. That case held that a book is obscene ‘if it has a substantial tendency to deprave or corrupt its readers by inciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire.’


By these standards punishment is inflicted for thoughts provoked, not for overt acts nor antisocial conduct. This test cannot be squared with our decisions under the First Amendment. Even the ill-starred Dennis case conceded that speech to be punishable must have some relation to action which could be penalized by government. Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 502—511, 71 S.Ct. 857, 863—868, 95 L.Ed. 1137. Cf. Chafee, The Blessings of Liberty (1956), p. 69. This issue cannot be avoided by saying that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. The question remains, what is the constitutional test of obscenity?


The tests by which these convictions were obtained require only the arousing of sexual thoughts. Yet the arousing of sexual thoughts and desires happens every day in normal life in dozens of ways. Nearly 30 years ago a questionnaire sent to college and normal school women graduates asked what things were most stimulating sexually. Of 409 replies, 9 said ‘music’; 18 said ‘pictures’; 29 said ‘dancing’; 40 said ‘drama’; 95 said ‘books’; and 218 said ‘man.’ Alpert, Judicial Censorship of Obscene Literature, 52 Harv.L.Rev. 40, 73.


The test of obscenity the Court endorses today gives the censor free range over a vast domain. To allow the State to step in and punish mere speech or publication that the judge or the jury thinks has an undesirable impact on thoughts but that is not shown to be a part of unlawful action is drastically to curtail the First Amendment. As recently stated by two of our outstanding authorities on obscenity, ‘The danger of influencing a change in the current moral standards of the community, or of shocking or offending readers, or of stimulating sex thoughts or desires apart from objective conduct, can never justify the losses to society that result from interference with literary freedom.’ Lockhart & McClure, Literature, The Law of Obscenity and the Constitution, 38 Minn.L.Rev. 295, 387.


If we were certain that impurity of sexual thoughts impelled to action, we would be on less dangerous ground in punishing the distributors of this sex literature. But it is by no means clear that obscene literature, as so defined, is a significant factor in influencing substantial deviations from the community standards.


‘There are a number of reasons for real and substantial doubts as to the soundness of that hypothesis. (1) Scientific studies of juvenile delinquency demonstrate that those who get into trouble, and are the greatest concern of the advocates of censorship, are far less inclined to read than those who do not become delinquent. The delinquents are generally the adventurous type, who have little use for reading and other non-active entertainment. Thus, even assuming that reading sometimes has an adverse effect upon moral conduct, the effect is not likely to be substantial, for those who are susceptible seldom read. (2) Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, who are among the country’s leading authorities on the treatment and causes of juvenile delinquency, have recently published the results of a ten year study of its causes. They exhaustively studied approximately 90 factors and influences that might lead to or explain juvenile delinquency, but the Gluecks gave no consideration to the type of reading material, if any, read by the delinquents. This is, of course, consistent with their finding that delinquents read very little. When those who know so much about the problem of delinquency among youth—the very group about whom the advocates of censorship are most concerned—conclude that what delinquents read has so little effect upon their conduct that it is not worth investigating in an exhaustive study of causes, there is good reason for serious doubt concerning the basic hypothesis on which obscenity censorship is defended. (3) The many other influences in society that stimulate sexual desire are so much more frequent in their influence, and so much more potent in their effect, that the influence of reading is likely, at most, to be relatively insignificant in the composite of forces that lead an individual into conduct deviating from the community sex standards. The Kinsey studies show the minor degree to which literature serves as a potent sexual stimulant. And the studies demonstrating that sex knowledge seldom results from reading indicates (sic) the relative unimportance of literature in sex thoughts as compared with other factors in society.’ Lockhart & McClure, op. cit. supra, pp. 385—386.


The absence of dependable information on the effect of obscene literature on human conduct should make us wary. It should put us on the side of protecting society’s interest in literature, except and unless it can be said that the particular publication has an impact on action that the government can control.


As noted, the trial judge in the Roth case charged the jury in the alternative that the federal obscenity statute outlaws literature dealing with sex which offends ‘the common conscience of the community.’ That standard is, in my view, more inimical still to freedom of expression.


The standard of what offends ‘the common conscience of the community’ conflicts, in my judgment, with the command of the First Amendment that ‘Congress shall make no law * * * abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ Certainly that standard would not be an acceptable one if religion, economics, polities or philosophy were involved. How does it become a constitutional standard when literature treating with sex is concerned?


Any test that turns on what is offensive to the community’s standards is too loose, too capricious, too destructive of freedom of expression to be squared with the First Amendment. Under that test, juries can censor, suppress, and punish what they don’t like, provided the matter relates to ‘sexual impurity’ or has a tendency ‘to excite lustful thoughts.’ This is community censorship in one of its worst forms. It creates a regime where in the battle between the literati and the Philistines, the Philistines and certain to win. If experience in this field teaches anything, it is that ‘censorship of obscenity has almost always been both irrational and indiscriminate.’ Lockhart & McClure, op. cit. supra, at 371. The test adopted here accentuates that trend.


I assume there is nothing in the Constitution which forbids Congress from using its power over the mails to proscribe conduct on the grounds of good morals. No one would suggest that the First Amendment permits nudity in public places, adultery, and other phases of sexual misconduct.


I can understand (and at times even sympathize) with programs of civic groups and church groups to protect and depend the existing moral standards of the community. I can understand the motives of the Anthony Comstocks who would impose Victorian standards on the community. When speech alone is involved, I do not think that government, consistently with the First Amendment, can become the sponsor of any of these movements. I do not think that government, consistently with the First Amendment, can throw its weight behind one school or another. Government should be concerned with antisocial conduct, not with utterances. Thus, if the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and press is to mean anything in this field, it must allow protests even against the moral code that the standard of the day sets for the community. In other words, literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.


The legality of a publication in this country should never be allowed to turn either on the purity of thought which it instills in the mind of the reader or on the degree to which it offends the community conscience. By either test the role of the censor is exalted, and society’s values in literary freedom are sacrificed.


The Court today suggests a third standard. It defines obscene material as that ‘which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest.’* Like the standards applied by the trial judges below, that standard does not require any nexus between the literature which is prohibited and action which the legislature can regulate or prohibit. Under the First Amendment, that standard is no more valid than those which the courts below adopted.


I do not think that the problem can be resolved by the Court’s statement that ‘obscenity is not expression protected by the First Amendment.’ With the exception of Beauharnais v. People of State of Illinois, 343 U.S. 250, 72 S.Ct. 725, 96 L.Ed. 919, none of our cases has resolved problems of free speech and free press by placing any form of expression beyond the pale of the absolute prohibition of the First Amendment. Unlike the law of libel, wrongfully relief on in Beauharnais, there is no special historical evidence that literature dealing with sex was intended to be treated in a special manner by those who drafted the First Amendment. In fact, the first reported court decision in this country involving obscene literature was in 1821. Lockhart & McClure, op. cit. supra, at 324, n. 200. I reject too the implication that problems of freedom of speech and of the press are to be resolved by weighing against the values of free expression, the judgment of the Court that a particular form of that expression has ‘no redeeming social importance.’ The First Amendment, its prohibition in terms absolute, was designed to preclude courts as well as legislatures from weighing the values of speech against silence. The First Amendment puts free speech in the preferred position.


Freedom of expression can be suppressed if, and to the extent that, it is so closely brigaded with illegal action as to be an inseparable part of it. Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U.S. 490, 498, 69 S.Ct. 684, 688, 93 L.Ed. 834; National Labor Relations Board v. Virginia Power Co., 314 U.S. 469, 477—478, 62 S.Ct. 344, 348, 86 L.Ed. 348. As a people, we cannot afford to relax that standard. For the test that suppresses a cheap tract today can suppress a literary gem tomorrow. All it need do is to incite a lascivious thought or arouse a lustful desire. The list of books that judges or juries can place in that category is endless.


I would give the broad sweep of the First Amendment full support. I have the same confidence in the ability of our people to reject noxious literature as I have in their capacity to sort out the true from the false in theology, economics, politics, or any other field.

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Source: Legal Information InstituteBY-NC-SA-2.5

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17U.S.C.105).