Roth v. United States (1957)

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Roth v. United States is a 1957 Supreme Court case holding that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment.  Find the full opinion here.

It has since been superseded by Miller v. California, which created a three-part standard to determine whether the First Amendment protects the obscene speech.

Here, the plaintiff, Roth, operated a book-selling business in New York and was convicted under a federal statute prohibiting the mailing of “every obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character.” He challenged the federal statute for violating the First Amendment, arguing that obscene speech should be protected. The Court ruled against Roth, finding that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. Justice Brennan, writing for the court, reasoned that historically and at the time, nearly all states restricted obscenity in some way. Also, restrictions on speech dealing with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest was commonly accepted, and restrictions on obscenity are comparable. Justice Douglas dissented, arguing that the Court’s focus on the purity of the thoughts the speech instills in the audience is too broad.

[Last updated in December of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]