Obscenity Timeline – what is obscenity?

I believe I have enough material to constitute a timeline that is somewhat useful for study. I listened to my class lectures, took notes and searched the web. Well here is what I have:

  1. 1663 – The King v. Sir Charles Sedley – first obscenity trial on record. He was convicted because he bared himself and shouted out obscene statements while urinating in public.  This was the basis of Anglo-American obscenity laws to come.
  2. 1868 – Queen v. Hicklin – this case born the first definition of obscenity.  The Confessional Unmasked was deemed obscene since it had the tendency to deprave and corrupt those that read it. (underclass, woman and children)
  3. 1873 –Comstock Act – made it illegal to distribute material regarding birth control through the mail.
  4. 1896 – Rosen V. United States – girlie magazine Tenderloin used pictures that were covered in lamp black that can be erased with bread.  Hicklin test applied to this case.
  5. 1930 – Massachusettes State Supreme Court found An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser to be obscene.
  6. 1957 – Roth V. United States – Justice Brennan stated that sex and obscenity are not synomymous.  That obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. The Roth test fixed the Hicklin test in that it took to the whole context not just a passage and the audience was the “average” person not a select few that would be offended.
  7. 1957 – Butler v. State of Michigan – adults should not be limited only to material deemed appropriate for children.
  8. 1964 – Jocobellis v. Ohio – community standards (as in the Roth test) should be based on national(US) not local(Ohio) standards.  “The Lover’s” with its 3 minute love scene was not deemed obscene based on national standards – Justice Stewart said “I know it when I see it….this is not the case.”
  9. 1965 – Ginzburg v. United States – advertising is obscene, not necessarily the material. The mailing of 3 books that had some social importance was purposely marketed as pornography by the attempted postmarketing from places such as Intercourse, PA, Blue Balls, PA and Middlesex, NJ.
  10. 1966 – A book named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure v. Attorney General of Com. of Massachusettes. – deemed Fanny Hill obscene; however New York’s court deemed it ok.  Tropic of Cancer deemed obscene in NY but OK in Massachusettes – confusion arises about the Roth test.
  11. 1967 – Redrup v. New York – a new verb was added “to redrup” meant that at least 5 members or the court each applying their own test, found materials to be protected by the First Amendment. After too many overturned cases, they reallized they failed to give lower courts coherent constitutional guidelines.
  12. 1968 – Ginsberg v. State of New York – unlawful to sell to minors even if it isn’t considered obscene to adults. “Smut Peddling Law” deemed harmful to minors. (Long Island luncheonette owner guilty of selling 2 girlie magazines to a 16 year old boy)
  13. 1969 – Stanley v. Georgia – can’t prohibit citizens from posession of obscene material for personal use.  Thurgood Marshall noted the right to privacy.
  14. 1973 – Miller v. California &
  15. Paris Adult Theater I v. Slaton – Justice Warren Burger applied the Miller Test for both cases. He discarded Roth and Jacobellis stating that local standards prevail. Obscenity is not covered by the First Amendment.   (Emphasis is now on contemporary community standards based on state laws and must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.)
  16. 1977 – Smith v. US – it is up to the jurors to define what appeals to prurient interest and what is patently offensive.
  17. 1982 – New York v. Ferber – child pornography not protected by First Amendment – live acts only
  18. 1986 – Renton v. Playtime Theaters – zoning restrictions may be used to restirct adult theaters to remote areas but you may not ban them entirely.
  19. 1990 – Osborne v. Ohio – extended NY v. Ferber ruling to include the prohibition of viewing and possessing child porn, as well as production and distribution of child porn. 
  20. 1996 – Denver Telecommunication v. FCC – in regards to X-rated cable programs – court is indecisive about such regulation. Technology is outpacing the doctrines protecting minors from material.
  21. 1997 – Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union – in regards to the internet, the Supreme Court of the United States found that the Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional.
  22. 1998 – Copa – Child Online Protection Act – never passed – deemed unconstitutional due to the lack of definition to community standards (internet would have to use the most restrictive standards.)

With the internet and other technologies developing rapidly, getting a hold on obscenity and regulating it is becoming more and more difficult as noted by my final three entries of my timeline.  Add to that, the fact that society is changing just as fast.  What I once thought was obscene years ago, by today’s standard’s are not so bad.  As much as I love the freedoms we enjoy, I cringe when I think of what tomorrow may bring.  It seems like more and more, we are giving protection to those who push the envelope while we are forced to deal with the trash they view as protected by our First Amendment. Just where are we headed??

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