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Jenkins v. Georgia

"i Know It When I See It"

For many years, the ruling definition on obscenity was summed up in a famous comment made by Justice Stewart in 1964. Stewart explained that while obscenity was difficult to define precisely, "I know it when I see it."

The problem was that for Stewart or any other Supreme Court justice to see it, the obscene book, film, or photograph had to become the subject of a court case in which someone protested a local obscenity law and took his or her protest to the Supreme Court. This meant that people whose work was not necessarily obscene--serious filmmakers, writers, or photographers who wanted to deal with sexuality or to portray nudity--felt a "chilling effect." This is when fearing to be charged with obscenity, they might censor themselves and thereby lose their First Amendment rights to free expression. Moreover, commercial filmmakers and other artists who wanted to stay within the law did not exactly know where to draw the line.

Stewart's decision did at least define what was not obscene: any work that had "redeeming social value." His decision held sway for the liberal Warren Court of the 1960s. Then, in 1973, the more conservative Burger Court offered a sterner ruling. In the landmark decision Miller v. California, the Court changed the standards: now, rather than "redeeming social importance," a work had to have "literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Juries were encouraged to find obscene any work that would be considered "patently offensive" according to "contemporary community standards."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Jenkins v. Georgia - Significance, "i Know It When I See It", An "obscenely Boring" Film, Defining Obscenity