Roth v. United States
In Roth, the Supreme Court for the first time defined obscenity, which it described in terms of the First Amendment.
Samuel Roth ran a business in New York City that published and sold books, magazines, and photographs. He advertised his wares in circulars and other advertisements which he mailed to potential customers. He was convicted in federal district court of mailing obscene material in violation of a federal obscenity statute. After the circuit court upheld his conviction, Roth took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In another case decided with Roth, David S. Alberts, who ran a mail order business in Los Angeles, was convicted in state court of selling obscene and indecent books and publishing an obscene advertisement of them. A California appellate court upheld his conviction for having violated a state obscenity law. Like Roth, Alberts appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Both men questioned the constitutionality of obscenity laws which they said conflicted with First Amendment guarantees of free speech and a free press. The United States had, since the early nineteenth century, had criminal obscenity laws on the books. Because no question had been raised about a potential conflict between these laws and the first component of the Bill of Rights, they were regularly enforced. As a consequence, works of obvious literary merit alleged to be obscene, such as Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, had no constitutional protection. In Roth the Court was obliged to confront the question of whether or not obscenity was actually protected by the First Amendment.