Obscenity: Analysis of Case Studies

Summary of Cases

Miller was found guilty of violating a California law that makes it illegal to transmit obscene materials by the government of California. He conducted a massive mailing campaign to advertise the sale of material that contained naked pictures. He filed an appeal with the Superior Court’s Appellate Division (Moore et al., 2022). He argued for a work to be labeled obscene, it must be completely devoid of any redeeming social value, complaining the jury instructions ignored it. The Supreme Court reiterated as it did in the Roth case, that the First Amendment does not protect obscene material. Finally, it was proposed that modern decency standards should be used to determine what constitutes obscenity. The court ruled that the First Amendment did not apply because the controlled substance was subject to California state law. In the Roth v. California case, Samuel Roth, a publisher based in New York, sold explicit periodicals. A California businessman named David Alberts distributed magazines featuring scantily clad women. Roth and Phillips were found to have violated federal and state obscenity laws and filed for appeals with the supreme court of California (Moore et al., 2022). The court ruled that obscene writing was not journalism or free expression; hence, the first amendment did not protect them.

Definition of Obscenity

In Roth v. the United States (US) (1957), the Supreme Court stated unequivocally that the first amendment does not protect meaningless writing and speech. According to the law, obscenity was determined by whether the material as a whole appealed to the prurient curiosity, taking into account the accepted standards of the time. According to the court, due process was not violated because the concept of obscenity provided adequate, fair notice (Setiawan, 2021). In Miller v. California, Justice Brennan reversed his position, ruling that obscene materials were not protected by the First Amendment in Roth’s case against the US. The work is checked to determine whether it depicts or portrays sexual behavior expressly prohibited by state law and whether such behavior is manifestly unpleasant. For the first time since the Roth case, the Supreme Court had a majority opinion on what constitutes obscenity with Miller (Meek). Following Miller, the Supreme Court spent years reviewing various convictions in obscenity cases before deciding not to monitor state processes in such situations.

Why Roth and Miller were not Protected by First Amendment

Miller’s case ruling at the supreme court was based on requiring everyone to conform to the same national norm and considering the act as a whole. Even if a minor portion of a work is deemed offensive, the rest of the work will be protected under the First Amendment. Based on this law, the Supreme Court upheld Roth’s conviction for transmitting obscene materials. This defined the line between unrestricted free expression and unacceptable obscenity. In Roth’s case, the court applied a more stringent definition of obscenity than had previously been used under common law precedent. The court argued that current norms of acceptable behavior best predict whether a work’s central theme will be perceived as obscene by the average person (Gordon, 2022). Additionally, it held that a piece of writing must serve no redeeming social purpose to be considered obscene. The defendants’ actions did not have to be either protected by the First Amendment or found to be illegal under this standard. In both cases, the appeals failed, and the court appealed the initial ruling of the high courts.

Importance of Understanding Obscenity Laws

Obscenity legislation’s primary goal is to limit the range of possible verbal, visual, and literary expression. To prevent the degradation of morality and the spread of offensive material, the American legal system enacted several obscenity laws (Moore et al., 2022). Because different people have different definitions of “obscene,” the obscenity laws in the US are sometimes the source of heated debate. Professional speakers concerned about the legality of their work should read and understand the Obscenity law. Because of the possibility of ambiguity, they risk being held liable for any consequences that result from their failure to comply.


Gordon, J. S. (2022). The local community standard: Modernizing the Supreme Court’s obscenity jurisprudence. Web.

Meek, A. Pornography and its legal limits. The Sociological Eye 2019, 23. Web.

Moore, R.L., Murray, M.D., & Youm, K.H. (2022). Media law and ethics. 6th ed., New York: Routledge.

Setiawan, M. (2021). “I know it when I see it”: The Supreme Court and the changing definition of obscenity. Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, 11(2), 114-131. Web.

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"Obscenity: Analysis of Case Studies." LawBirdie, 29 Oct. 2023, lawbirdie.com/obscenity-analysis-of-case-studies/.


LawBirdie. (2023) 'Obscenity: Analysis of Case Studies'. 29 October.


LawBirdie. 2023. "Obscenity: Analysis of Case Studies." October 29, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/obscenity-analysis-of-case-studies/.

1. LawBirdie. "Obscenity: Analysis of Case Studies." October 29, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/obscenity-analysis-of-case-studies/.


LawBirdie. "Obscenity: Analysis of Case Studies." October 29, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/obscenity-analysis-of-case-studies/.