Global Freedom of Expression

Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Books / Plays
  • Date of Decision
    February 18, 1963
  • Outcome
    Remanded for Decision in Accordance with Ruling
  • Case Number
    372 U.S. 58
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship, Indecency / Obscenity
  • Tags
    Content-Based Restriction, Publisher

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The United States Supreme Court ruled that the actions of a state commission in Rhode Island designed to protect minors from offensive or obscene language or images was unconstitutional. Four publishers sued after being notified that the commission found that their publications contained material unfit for consumption by minors, and that they faced prosecution if they did not cease distribution and collect all unsold copies. The Court found that although states had the right to regulate obscene material, the actions were unconstitutional because in practice the order restricted the access of adults to the objectionable content.


The state of Rhode Island created a commission to screen published materials for offensive or obscene images or language. The commission was created to enforce a law that was designed to protect minors (under the age of 18) from exposure to obscene and offensive materials. Once the commission had decided that particular material was unfit, they would inform law enforcement, and the publisher would be forced to collect all unsold copies and stop distribution. If the publisher refused to comply with the order of the commission, they could be prosecuted.

Four out-of-state publishers, whose Rhode Island distributor had received notices from the commission that some of their materials “had been declared by a majority of [the commission’s] members to be objectionable for sale, distribution or display to youths under 18 years of age,” sued, claiming that the law and the commission were unconstitutional.

Decision Overview

J. Brennan delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. He noted the regulation of obscenity has traditionally been left to the individual states. However, a state cannot implement regulations without consideration of the consequences to a narrowing of the First Amendment.

The Court focused on three main points: 1) the fact that the commission afforded no protection to the publishers of nonobscene materials, 2) that it did not provide any way for the publisher to appeal the decision of the commission, and 3) that it did not take into account that protecting minors from obscene materials would also censor adults from access to the same materials.

The commission’s procedure of informing the publisher and distributor under the threat of law created a hostile environment that had the potential to obstruct the publisher, distributor, and author’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Therefore, the commission went beyond the state’s right to regulate obscenity and suppressed constitutional rights. The Court held the law itself was constitutional, but the commission was unconstitutional.

J. Douglas concurred, noting that any censorship of obscene materials is incompatible with the First Amendment. J. Clark concurred as well, stating that if the commission had a set of rules or proceedings, it could exist compatibly with constitutional rights.

J. Harlan dissented, arguing that the existence of the commission was not unconstitutional. He asserted that remedies for nonobscene materials exist within the court system and that the issue of adult censorship must be determined by an individual case, rather than through a broad generalization that such censorship may occur.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

With this decision, the Supreme Court of the United States maintained that the regulation of obscene materials should be left to the states. However, the Court did protect publishers and authors by finding that the state must create procedural safeguards to protect nonobscene materials from being subjectively censored. Therefore, in order for a state to censor obscene materials, it must consider the implications doing so may have on the First Amendment.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Const. amend. I
  • U.S., Const. amend. XIV
  • U.S., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)
  • U.S., Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147 (1959)
  • U.S., NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963)
  • U.S., Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931)
  • U.S., Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513 (1958)
  • U.S., Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938)

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States are binding on all lower courts. This decision put limitations on how the states can regulate obscenity.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

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