On June 24, 1957, the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled in Roth v United States that obscenity was not protected speech under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press clause. At the same time, the court set a new, far-reaching precedent by more strictly defining and limiting exactly what constituted obscenity, opening the door to years of ambiguity and case-by-case determinations (and the necessity for numerous screenings by the justices of alleged pornographic films and materials).
Samuel Roth was a New York City publisher and bookseller whose American Aphrodite quarterly (“for the fancy-free”) included erotica and nude photography. Convicted under a federal statute for sending “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy” materials through the mail, he appealed his case and the Supreme Court agreed to a hearing. Prior to Roth v United States, the judicial standard for obscenity was established by common law rule in an 1868 English case as any material that tended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences”.
The court denied Roth protection under the First Amendment, by a 6 – 3 decision. Writing for the majority opinion, newly appointed Justice William J Brennan, Jr reaffirmed that obscenity was not protected speech, but went on to establish a new, narrower definition of obscenity as material whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest” to the “average person, applying contemporary community standards”, and “utterly without redeeming social importance”. The pornography industry grew rapidly following the Roth v United States decision.
Image Credit: American Aphrodite/Galactic Central Publications