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Stanley v. Georgia

Obscene Materials, Privacy And The First Amendment

Appellant Stanley was being investigated for operating an illegal gambling operation in his home. Federal and state law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant and were searching Stanley's home, but uncovered little to prove a bookmaking operation. However, law enforcement authorities discovered three reels of eight-millimeter film in a desk drawer. Using a projector and screen found in Stanley's living room, they watched the films. The state law enforcement officer determined that the movies were obscene. Stanley was charged with possession of obscene material and was arrested. He was later indicated for "knowingly hav[ing] possession of obscene matter," which violated the state's law. Stanley was tried by a jury and convicted. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the conviction.

In his opinion, Justice Marshall dealt solely with Stanley's argument that the Georgia obscenity statute violated the First Amendment. He wrote:

If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch. Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds.

Attorneys for the state argued that law was derived from the dangers of viewing obscene material that it could lead to "deviant sexual behavior or crimes of sexual violence." Justice Marshall dismissed this concern. ". . . the State may no more prohibit mere possession of obscene matter on the ground that it may lead to antisocial conduct than it may prohibit possession of chemistry books on the ground that they may lead to the manufacture of homemade spirits." Finally, the Court addressed the argument that banning private possession of pornographic material was the only way to prevent distribution of such material. While the Court acknowledged that it may be difficult to make a case against the "intent to distribute or in producing evidence of actual distribution," that was not a good reason to violate the sanctity and privacy of an individual's home. Justice Marshall wrote:

We are not convinced that such difficulties exist, but even if they did we do not think that they would justify infringement of the individual's right to read or observe what he pleases. Because that right is so fundamental to our scheme of individual liberty, its restriction may not be justified by the need to ease the administration of otherwise valid criminal laws.

Justice Stewart in a concurring opinion reasoned that the majority while correct in reversing the conviction had over looked that the obscene material was illegally obtained. Before the criminal trial, Stanley had filed a motion to suppress the films because they were obtained in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the seizure of the materials was indeed legal.

This record presents a bald violation of that basic constitutional rule. To condone what happened here is to invite a government official to use a seemingly precise and legal warrant only as a ticket to get into a man's home, and, once inside, to launch forth upon unconfined searches and indiscriminate seizures as if armed with all the unbridled and illegal power of a general warrant.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Stanley v. Georgia - Obscene Materials, Privacy And The First Amendment, Impact, Related Cases