Obscenity is a category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment. Obscenity laws are concerned with prohibiting lewd, filthy, or disgusting words or pictures. Indecent materials or depictions, normally speech or artistic expressions, may be restricted in terms of time, place, and manner, but are still protected by the First Amendment. There are major disagreements regarding obscene material and the government's role in regulation. All fifty states have individual laws controlling obscene material.
Currently, obscenity is evaluated by federal and state courts alike using a tripartite standard established by Miller v. California. The Miller test for obscenity includes the following criteria: (1) whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ appeals to ‘prurient interest’ (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Prior to Miller, judges testing for obscenity invoked the wisdom handed down by the Court in Roth v. United States. A landmark case, Roth ruled that obscene material was not protected by the First Amendment and could be regulated by the States rather than by a singular, Federal standard. Also, Roth established a new judicial standard for defining obscenity that invoked the average person’s application of contemporary community standards to judge whether or not the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest. A test for obscenity derived from Roth that included the following five-part structure: (1) the perspective of evaluation was that of an ordinary, reasonable person, (2) community standards of acceptability were to be used to measure obscenity, (3) works whose predominant theme was questionable were the only target of obscenity law, (4) a work, in order to be evaluated for obscenity, had to be taken in its entirety, and (5) an obscene work was one that aimed to excited individuals’ prurient interest. Miller revised Roth’s emphasis on creating a uniform Federal standard. Instead, it touted reliance on community standards of a more local nature, which threw the arduous task of defining obscenity back upon the States.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly grappled with problematic elements of the Miller test for obscenity. However, to date, no standard has replaced it.
In 1997, Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU I”) addressed obscenity in the field of new media. The ACLU challenged the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a portion of the 1996 Telecommunications Act aimed at protecting children by restricting transmissions sent over the Internet. After the Supreme Court ruled the CDA was overly broad in its approach to regulating obscenity online, Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998.
The ACLU again filed suit, which became Ashcroft v. Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU II”). Aschcroft, upheld the Constitutionality of COPPA and deemed its use of “‘community standards’ to identify ‘material that is harmful to minors’” an acceptable practice under the First Amendment. However, the Court also demanded that COPPA be enjoined and the case be remanded to the Third Circuit, where the Court found COPPA created a content-ban on adult transmissions that was overly broad, intrusive, and restrictive in its efforts to protect children from adult speech. The details of the case were finally resolved in January 2009, when the Supreme Court denied certiorari to ACLU v. Mukasey, a case that could have broadened obscenity law beyond the parameters of the Miller test.
Last Updated June of 2017 by Tala Esmaili.
Menu of Sources
Federal Judicial Decisions
- U.S. Supreme Court:
- Federal Law
- New York State Obscenity Law - Article 235.00 to 235.24 Obscenity and Related Offenses
- California Penal Code §311 to 312.7 Chapter 7.5 Obscene Matter
- State Statutes Dealing with Labor
State Judicial Decisions
- N.Y. Court of Appeals:
- Appellate Decisions from Other States
Key Internet Sources
- LII Resources: Obscenity
- Citizen's Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Obscenity
- U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section CEOS