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Miller v. California Legal Brief

Miller v. California 413 U.S. 15
Vote: 7-2

The facts of this case are these: Miller “was convicted of mailing unsolicited, sexually explicit material in violation of a California statute that approximately incorporated the obscenity test formulated in Memoirs v. Massachusetts, that trial court instructed the jury to evaluate the materials by the contemporary community standards of California. Appellant’s conviction was affirmed on appeal. The case makes its way to the Supreme Court in lieu of the obscenity criteria enunciated by the Memoirs plurality decision.”

The issues in this case are these: 1. Was the material for which Miller arrested and convicted outside the protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? 2. Was the material for which Miller arrested and convicted obscene, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment?

The Court in this case held through Justice Burger that: 2. “Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment (Roth v. United States), reaffirmed. A work may be subject to state regulation where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” “The basic guidelines for the trier of fact 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, (Roth, supra) (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. If a state obscenity law is thus limited, First Amendment values are adequately protected by ultimate independent appellate review of constitutional claims when necessary.” “The test of ‘utterly without redeeming social value’ articulated in Memoirs, Supra, is rejected as a constitutional standard.” “The jury may measure the essentially factual issues of prurient appeal and patent offensiveness by the standard that prevails in the forum community, and need not employ a ‘national standard.’ 1. Miller’s jury was provided the wrong test for his conviction; therefore the conviction was vacated and remanded.

The Court’s rationale in the case was that the standard adopted by California that the material had to have redeeming social value; the Court found that this was not of a constitutional nature. The Court found that the redeeming social value standard was an unconstitutional standard, the Court adopted part of the ‘obscenity standard’ and rejected part.

Justice Douglas in a dissenting opinion stated: “Today we leave open the way for California to send a man to prison for distributing brochures that advertise books and movies under freshly written standards defining obscenity which until today’s decision were never part of any law.”

Justice Brennan in a dissenting opinion stated: “In my dissent in Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, I noted that I had no occasion to consider the extent of state power to regulate the distribution of sexually oriented material to juveniles or the offensive exposure of such material to unconsenting adults. In the case before us, appellant was convicted of distributing obscene matter in violation of California Penal Code 311.2, on the basis of evidence that he had caused to be mailed unsolicited brochures advertising various books and movies. I need not decide whether a statute might be drawn to impose, within the requirements of the First Amendment, criminal penalties for the precise conduct at issue here.”

The significance of this case is that for the first time in American History, the standard for what is obscene was settled by the Supreme Court. The standard for what is obscene from this case is as follows: 1. ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest. 2. Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, 3. And whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. If a piece of material is ‘to the average person’ a work taken a whole, appealing to the prurient interest, the material depicts or described offensively sexual conduct as specifically defined by state law, and if the material is not a work, taken as a whole, to have literary, artistic, political or scientific value then the material may be obscene.