Content Regulation / Censorship, Indecency / Obscenity
Reno v. ACLU
Closed Expands Expression
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The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction under a law that censored obscene material. Robert Redrup was convicted after selling paperback sex novels considered obscene under the New York Penal Code. The Court determined that because the content was not sold to minors nor had it been forced upon an unwilling audience, there was no constitutional basis for the obscenity restriction. In this ruling the Court also overturned numerous other convictions under obscenity laws from around the country.
This case is a combination of three separate cases.
In Redup v. NY, the Petitioner was a clerk at a newsstand in New York who sold two obscene books to an undercover police officer. He was convicted of violating New York obscenity laws and his sentence was upheld on appeal.
In Austin v. Kentucky, the Petitioner was the owner of a bookstore and newsstand in Kentucky who was convicted of violating a state law for selling two obscene magazines to a female customer. The Kentucky Court of Appeals overruled his request for an appeal.
In Gent v. Arkansas, the prosecuting attorney in Arkansas brought a civil suit to have certain issues of various magazines declared obscene, to enjoin their distribution and to obtain a judgment ordering their surrender and destruction. The County Chancery Court found the magazines to be obscene, a ruling that the Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted review and grouped these three cases together as they all arose from a recurring conflict between the States’ power to suppress allegedly obscene material. At issue was whether the three restrictions imposed by the three States on obscene material violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
The Supreme Court reversed the judgments in all of the cases finding that all of the publications were protected under the “First and Fourteenth Amendments from governmental suppression, whether civil or criminal, in personam or in rem.”
The Court referred to the different concurring opinions given by the Justices: two had found that a state has no power to suppress any writings or pictures merely on the basis that they are obscene; another found that the State’s power to suppress materials because they are obscene was to be narrowly construed; others subscribed to an ‘obscenity test’ whereby materials would not be considered “obscene unless ‘(a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters; and (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value.”
The Court found that whichever of ‘these constitutional views is brought to bear upon the cases…it is clear that the judgments cannot stand’.
Justice Harlan and Justice Clark dissented, finding that the Court had ruled that that the materials could not constitutionally be adjudged obscene by the States which was not argued in any of the briefs or oral argument before the Court. The argument for review in Redup v. New York and Austin v. Kentucky was that the Court should have considered the relevance of knowledge in prosecutions of obscenity while Gent v. Arkansas dealt with the application of an Arkansas anti-obscenity statute and whether it was void for vagueness or an unlawful prior restraint.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by explicitly stating that the publication of obscene material is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments from governmental suppression, whether criminal or civil. The decision is widely regarded as the end of U.S. censorship of written fiction.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the Supreme Court, this decision binds all lower courts in the United States. It is widely regarded as the end of U.S. censorship of written fiction.
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