Roth V U S The Roth Test

The Case

Roth came down as a 6-3 decision, with the opinion of the Court authored by William J. Brennan, Jr.. The Court repudiated the Hicklin test and defined obscenity more strictly, as material whose "dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest" to the "average person, applying contemporary community standards." Only material meeting this test could be banned as "obscene." However, Brennan reaffirmed that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment and thus upheld the convictions of Roth and Alberts for sending obscene material over the mail.

Congress could ban material, "utterly without redeeming social importance," or in other words, "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest."

Chief Justice Earl Warren worried that "broad language used here may eventually be applied to the arts and sciences and freedom of communication generally," but, agreeing that obscenity is not constitutionally protected, concurred only in the judgment.

Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, First Amendment "literalists," dissented in Roth, arguing vigorously that the First Amendment protected obscene material.

Justice John Marshall Harlan II dissented in Roth, involving a federal statute, but concurred in Alberts, involving a state law, on the grounds that while states had broad power to prosecute obscenity, the federal government did not.

In Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966), a plurality of the Court further redefined the Roth test by holding unprotected only that which is "patently offensive" and "utterly without redeeming social value," but no opinion in that case could command a majority of the Court either, and the state of the law in the obscenity field remained confused.

With the Court unable to agree as to what constituted obscenity, the Justices were put in the position of having to personally review almost every obscenity prosecution in the United States, with the Justices gathering for weekly screenings of "obscene" motion pictures (Black and Douglas pointedly refused to participate, believing all the material protected)[citation needed]. Meanwhile, pornography and sexually oriented publications proliferated as a result of the Warren Court's holdings, the "Sexual Revolution" of the 1960s flowered, and pressure increasingly came to the Court to allow leeway for state and local governments to crack down on obscenity. During his ill-fated bid to become Chief Justice, Justice Abe Fortas was attacked vigorously in Congress by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond for siding with the Warren Court majority in liberalizing protection for pornography. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon campaigned against the Warren Court, pledging to appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court.

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