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Jenkins v. Georgia

An "obscenely Boring" Film

Miller gave a few more explicit guidelines for obscenity: "representations or descriptions or ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated," and "representations or descriptions of masturbation, excretory functions, and lewd exhibition of the genitals." The goal of Miller, as Justice Rehnquist explained in Jenkins v. Georgia, was to make questions about what was obscene "essentially questions of fact"--not questions of opinion.

Meanwhile, across the United States, people continued to be convicted of obscenity charges. There was enough uncertainty about exactly what was considered obscene that many of these cases were appealed to higher and higher courts. Eventually, one of those cases made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On 13 January 1972, theater manager Billy Jenkins was showing a film called Carnal Knowledge in a little movie house in Albany, Georgia. While the film was playing, local law-enforcement officers seized it and used it to charge Jenkins with distributing obscene material. Jenkins was fined $750 and sentenced to 12 months probation.

Carnal Knowledge was a mainstream Hollywood film that had already played in 29 towns in Georgia. The movie was directed by Mike Nichols, written by Jules Feiffer, and starred Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret. The film had made several "Ten Best" lists when it came out in 1971, and Ann-Margret had even been nominated for an Oscar. The movie was a portrait of two men who meet at college in the 1950s and continue as friends and romantic rivals throughout the liberated 1960s, each engaging in more and more sexual encounters that become less and less satisfying.

In his majority opinion for Jenkins, Rehnquist made it clear that the movie could in no way be viewed as obscene.

While the subject matter of the picture is, in a broader sense, sex, and there are scenes in which sexual conduct including "the ultimate sexual act" is to be understood to be taking place, the camera does not focus on the bodies of the actors at such times. There is no exhibition whatever of the actors' genitals, lewd or otherwise, during these scenes. There are occasional scenes of nudity, but nudity alone is not enough to make material legally obscene under the Miller standards
At the first screening of the film for the nine justices, Justice White put it more succinctly. "The only thing obscene about this movie is that it is obscenely boring," he complained.

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