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Memoirs v. Massachusetts

Lower Court Found Fanny Hill Obscene, Justice Douglas Noted Definition Of Obscene Objective, Dissenting Justices Find Differing Conclusions


A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," G. P. Putnam's Sons


William I. Covin, Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts

Petitioner's Claim

That the book John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, was entitled to protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court erred when it found that a book which appealed to the prurient interest was not required to be completely worthless to be ruled obscene.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner

Charles Rembar

Chief Lawyer for Respondent

William I. Cowin

Justices for the Court

Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr. (writing for the Court), William O. Douglas, Abe Fortas, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren.

Justices Dissenting

Tom C. Clark, John Marshall Harlan II, Byron R. White


Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision

21 March 1966


The Supreme Court found that the book was not obscene, and that the First and Fourteenth Amendments prevented Massachusetts from prohibiting its publication or distribution. However, the justices did not agree on why the book constituted protected speech, and no majority opinion was delivered.


The case added to the debate among First Amendment scholars concerning definitions of obscenity and the authority to deem printed materials as works without merit.

Related Cases

  • Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957).
  • Ginzburg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966).
  • Mishkin v. New York, 383 U.S. 502 (1966).


Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.A: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

Further Readings

  • Biskupic, Joan, and Elder Witt, eds. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1996.
  • Johnson, John W., ed. Historic U.S. Court Cases, 1690-1990: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.
  • Konvitz, Milton R., ed. Bill of Rights Reader, 5th ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.
  • Time, April 1, 1966.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972