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Roth v. United States

Roth v. United States
Argued April 22, 1957
Decided June 24, 1957
Full case name Samuel Roth v. United States
Citations 354 U.S. 476 (more)
77 S. Ct. 1304; 1 L. Ed. 2d 1498; 1957 U.S. LEXIS 587; 14 Ohio Op. 2d 331; 1 Media L. Rep. 1375
Prior history Cert. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, but more strictly defines what is considered "obscene".
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brennan, joined by Frankfurter, Burton, Clark, Whittaker
Concurrence Warren (in the judgment of the court only)
Dissent Harlan
Dissent Douglas, joined by Black
Superseded by
Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)

Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957),[1] along with its companion case Alberts v. California, was a landmark case before the United States Supreme Court which redefined the Constitutional test for determining what constitutes obscene material unprotected by the First Amendment.

Prior history

Under the common law rule that prevailed before Roth, articulated most famously in the 1868 English case Hicklin v. Regina, any material that tended to "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences" was deemed "obscene" and could be banned on that basis. Thus, works by Balzac, Flaubert, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence were banned based on isolated passages and the effect they might have on children.

Samuel Roth, who ran a literary business in New York City, was convicted under a federal statute criminalizing the sending of "obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy" materials through the mail for advertising and selling a publication called American Aphrodite ("A Quarterly for the Fancy-Free") containing literary erotica and nude photography. David Alberts, who ran a mail-order business from Los Angeles, was convicted under a California statute for publishing pictures of "nude and scantily-clad women." The Court granted a writ of certiorari and affirmed both convictions.

The case

Roth came down as a 6-3 decision, with the opinion of the Court authored by William J. Brennan, Jr.. The Court repudiated the Hicklin test and defined obscenity more strictly, as material whose "dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest" to the "average person, applying contemporary community standards." Only material meeting this test could be banned as "obscene." However, Brennan reaffirmed that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment and thus upheld the convictions of Roth and Alberts for publishing and sending obscene material over the mail.

Congress could ban material, "utterly without redeeming social importance," or in other words, "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest."

Chief Justice Earl Warren worried that "broad language used here may eventually be applied to the arts and sciences and freedom of communication generally," but, agreeing that obscenity is not constitutionally protected, concurred only in the judgment.

Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, First Amendment "literalists," dissented in Roth, arguing vigorously that the First Amendment protected obscene material.

Justice John Marshall Harlan II dissented in Roth, involving a federal statute, but concurred in Alberts, involving a state law, on the grounds that while states had broad power to prosecute obscenity, the federal government did not.

In Memoirs v. Massachusetts,[2] a plurality of the Court further redefined the Roth test by holding unprotected only that which is "patently offensive" and "utterly without redeeming social value," but no opinion in that case could command a majority of the Court either, and the state of the law in the obscenity field remained confused.

Pornography and sexually oriented publications proliferated as a result of the Warren Court's holdings, the "Sexual Revolution" of the 1960s flowered, and pressure increasingly came to the Court to allow leeway for state and local governments to crack down on obscenity. During his ill-fated bid to become Chief Justice, Justice Abe Fortas was attacked vigorously in Congress by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond for siding with the Warren Court majority in liberalizing protection for pornography. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon campaigned against the Warren Court, pledging to appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court.

The legacy of Roth v. United States

In Miller v. California (1973), a five-person majority agreed for the first time since Roth as to a test for determining constitutionally unprotected obscenity, superseding the Roth test. By the time Miller was considered in 1973, Justice Brennan had abandoned the Roth test and argued that "no formulation of this Court, the Congress, or the States can adequately distinguish obscene material unprotected by the First Amendment from protected expression."[3]

See also


  1. ^ Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957).
  2. ^ Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966),
  3. ^ C.J., B. (2011, March 23). Miller v. California (No. 70-73) . Retrieved February 17, 2012, from

Research resources

  • Roth v. United StatesGoogle Scholar entry on
  • Roth v. United StatesCornell University's Legal Information Institute entry on

External links

  • Text of Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 
  • Summary of background and decision
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