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Miller v. California

Matthew Steinberg

InstructorMatthew Steinberg

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

Miller v. California

Citation. 413 U.S. 15, 93 S. Ct. 2607, 37 L. Ed. 2d 419, 1973 U.S. 149.
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Brief Fact Summary.

This is one of a group of “obscenity-pornography” cases being reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) in a re-examination of the standards, which must be used to identify obscene material that a State may regulate.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The basic guidelines for a trier of fact in an obscenity matter must be: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.


In this case, the Appellant, Miller (Appellant), conducted a mass mailing campaign to advertise the sale of illustrated adult material books. The Appellant’s conviction was specifically based on his conduct in causing five unsolicited advertising brochures to be sent through the mail. The brochures consist primarily of pictures and drawings very explicitly depicting men and women in groups of two or more engaging in a variety of sexual activities, with genitals often predominantly displayed. This case thus involves the application of a state’s criminal obscenity statute to a situation in which sexually explicit materials have been thrust by aggressive sales action upon unwilling recipients.


Whether the obscenity presented in this case is prohibited by the applicable state statute?


In sum, the Supreme Court: (a) reaffirmed the Roth holding that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution), (b) held that such material can be regulated by the States, subject to specific safeguards, without a showing that the material is “utterly without redeeming social value and (c) held that obscenity is to be determined by applying “contemporary community standards.” As a result, the majority determined that the material at issue in this case was not protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and that the California state statute could regulate the matter. Furthermore, the requirement that a California jury evaluate the materials with reference to “contemporary standards” is constitutionally adequate.


Dissenting opinions were offered by both Justice William Douglas (J. Douglas) and Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan).
J. Douglas: It should not be the role of the court to define obscenity.
J. Brennan: The state statute in this case is unconstitutionally overbroad.


The Supreme Court focused much of its decision on the role of a jury in this type of matter. The Supreme Court found that, despite the guidelines that it established, it is nearly impossible to articulate a national obscenity standard. As a result, the Supreme Court noted that each state should be free, through state statute, to construct obscenity laws that are representative of their communities. Furthermore, the Supreme Court noted that the publication at issue in this case had no literary, artistic, political or scientific value. The Supreme Court found that hard-core portrayal of sexual conduct, for its own sake and for the ensuing commercial gain, does not fit the articulated standard.

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