Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

One of the most interesting aspects of being a technology lawyer is that it necessarily requires a strong understanding of Internet regulation and digital rights, including the right to express yourself online.  As such, free speech is one of my favourite areas of legal history and theory.  Coincidentally, two major US Supreme Court cases regarding free speech were decided on this day —  21 June!

This post takes a look at one of them: Miller v. California [1973].  In a later post, I’ll explore a second landmark free speech case decided on 21 June: Texas v. Johnson [1989].

The Constitution in Court.  

Most people know that the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech. However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than many would guess. In its entirety, the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Putting the aspects regarding religion, assembly, and petitions to one side, what this Amendment essentially does is prohibit the government from prohibiting freedom of speech. But what does that look like in practice?

Of course, we cannot travel back in time to 1789 to ask James Madison what he meant when he drafted the Bill of Rights. Instead, American Courts have over time developed various methodologies to apply modern facts to something written 230 years ago.

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Miller v. California – to what extent can the government regulate porn, and why should we care?

The case of Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) concerns pornography and whether or not the government is allowed to regulate obscene material. Marvin Miller was the owner/operator of a California mail-order business specializing in pornographic films and books. When his company’s brochures were sent to and opened by a restaurant owner in Newport Beach, California, the restaurant owner called the police. Miller was subsequently arrested and charged with violating California Penal Code § 311.2, which is paraphrased below:

Every person who knowingly sends into California for sale or distribution, or in this state possesses, prepares, publishes, with intent to distribute or to exhibit to others, any obscene matter is guilty of a misdemeanor.

The jury at Miller’s trial in State court had been instructed to consider the pornographic materials in question, and determine if they were “obscene.” The jury decided that they were, and Miller was found guilty. Because he objected with the way in which the jury had arrived at this conclusion, he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately vacated the earlier jury verdict and remanded the case back to the California Superior Court, the matter became a landmark decision and the basis for what is now known as the Miller Test.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Burger reaffirmed in Miller that obscenity can be regulated by the government, because it is “unprotected speech.” Referring to Roth v United States (1957) and other similar cases, Justice Burger explained that obscenity was not within the area of constitutionally protected freedom of speech either under the First Amendment, or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “In the light of history,” Justice Brennan had said in Roth, “it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance.”

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Legal Fun Fact:  The first conviction for obscenity in Great Britain occurred in 1727. Edmund Curll was convicted for publishing erotic fiction titled “Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock” under the common law offence of disturbing the King’s peace. 

Now that we are clear that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, the next question is obviously therefore: what is obscenity?  

In Miller, Justice Burger acknowledged the inherent dangers of regulating any form of expression, and said that “State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited.” As a result, the Supreme Court was tasked with confining “the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct.”

This brings us to Burger’s three-part test for juries in obscenity cases. Obscenity is now defined as something: (1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find appeals to a prurient interest; (2) which depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (3) whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific (or “SLAPS”) value. In short, obscenity must satisfy as the prurient interest, patently offensive, and SLAPS prongs.

The Miller test changed the way courts define obscenity, and accordingly, what does – or does not – deserve protection as “free speech.”  

This Miller obscenity test overturned the Court’s earlier definition of obscenity established in Memoirs v Massachusetts (1966). In Memoirs, the Court had decided that obscenity was material which was “patently offensive and utterly without redeeming social value.” Furthermore, the Memoirs decision made clear that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance have the full protection of the guaranties [of the First Amendment]”.

By adopting the Miller decision, the Supreme Court departed from Memoirs in favour of a more conservative and narrow interpretation of the types of speech which qualify for First Amendment protection. Rather than considering obscenity as simply that which is “utterly without redeeming social value” of any kind, obscenity is now a subjective standard. This offers wider discretion to State legislatures and police agencies, as well as prosecutors and jurors, to decide whether material is “obscene” under local community standards.

Not everyone agrees!  Unsurprisingly, the Miller decision was a narrow one, and split the Court 5-4.

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Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion, with Justice Douglas penning the dissent.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote the dissent and, at the risk of sounding like a total legal geek, I highly suggest taking a quick read of it! One of my favourite excerpts is as follows:

The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are “offensive” to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom […] The First Amendment was designed “to invite dispute,” to induce “a condition of unrest,” to “create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,” and even to stir “people to anger.” The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are “offensive” to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. 

Nevertheless, despite the dissent and criticism, the Miller test remains the federal and state standard for deciding what obscene. However, the rise of the Internet has complicated matters, not least because the concept of “community standards” is difficult to define given how interconnected we are today.

What do you think? After nearly 50 years, should the Supreme Court reconsider what “obscenity” means? Is the Miller Test due for an update?