Miller v. California
Established a new definition of obscenity, replacing a standard of lewd materials "utterly without redeeming social value" with one of materials judged to be obscene by "the average person, applying contemporary community standards."
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." This seemingly straightforward text lends itself to a variety of interpretations and its exact meaning has been the subject of many Supreme Court decisions, particularly with regard to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech has been found to have certain limits in carefully constrained circumstances, for instance that corporations may not make untruthful claims about their products, but its limits when applied to individual expression are much harder to define. The publication and distribution of sexually explicit materials has also been limited by Court action.
Marvin Miller was convicted in a California State court of knowingly distributing obscene matter, a misdemeanor under state law. During Miller's trial, the presiding judge instructed the jury to determine whether or not the materials in question were obscene by applying "contemporary community standards in California."
Miller appealed the case on the grounds that the instructions to the jury did not reflect the standard for judging materials to be obscene put forth in Memoirs v. Massachusetts, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. In that decision the Court ruled that, to be obscene in the eyes of the law, materials must: be taken as a whole appeal to a lewd interest in sex; be patently offensive by affronting contemporary community standards; and be "utterly without redeeming social value." The case reaffirmed a long-standing determination that obscene materials are not to be afforded First Amendment protection. Miller's attorneys maintained that since freedom of speech issues are by definition constitutional, only a national standard could be applied when determining the obscenity of materials. The Appellate Department, Superior Court of California, County of Orange, affirmed the lower court's ruling, and Miller appealed the case to the Supreme Court where arguments were heard on 18-19 January and 7 November 1972.
The Court vacated and remanded, in effect upholding the lower courts' verdicts. Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court, with Justices Brennan, Douglas, Marshall, and Stewart dissenting. The majority concluded that the standard for defining obscenity set forth in Memoirs v. Massachusetts was too rigorous, given the difficulty in deciding that anything is utterly without "redeeming social value." The Court therefore determined to reinstate a somewhat modified version of the previous standard for judging the obscenity of materials as set forth in Roth v. United States, a case decided in 1957. The new standard for judging materials to be obscene was set forth as follows:
(a) whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would find that work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law . . . (3) the test of "utterly without redeeming social value" articulated in Memoirs, supra, is rejected as a constitutional standard, (4) the jury may measure the essentially factual issues of prurient appeal and patent offensiveness by the standard that prevails in the forum community, and need not employ a "national standard."
Miller v. California marked a retreat by the Court from its broad interpretation of First Amendment protection of free speech that had been articulated in Roth v. United States. In a sign of things to come, the Court reverted to an older, more conservative standard for determining the obscenity of materials while also transferring responsibility from national bodies to communities.