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Roth v. United States

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Roth (Petitioner), was charged with violating the federal law against obscenity.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Obscenity is a type of unprotected speech. Obscene material deals with sex in a manner that is appealing to the prurient interest.

    Facts. The Respondent, the United States (Respondent), passed a law that prohibited the mailing of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, or other publication of an indecent character.” Petitioner was convicted of violating this statute because he mailed sexually explicit advertisements and a book to requesters.

    Issue. Is obscenity protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution)?

    Held. No. The federal law banning such speech is constitutional as long as the appropriate standard of obscene is used. Obscenity is “not communication and is without social value.”

    Dissent. This is punishing speech for the resulting thought that it may invoke, not for the act itself. Therefore, the law is unconstitutional.

    Discussion. All discussions or depictions of sex are not obscene. To be obscene the material must provide no literary or social value and it must have a tendency to excite lustful thoughts. This case is most famous for the footnote describing obscenity as “a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex or exertion, and if it foes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation of such matter.”


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