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Smith v. California (1959)

Smith v. California (1959)
361 U.S. 147
Vote: 9-0

The Facts of the case are these: the “appellant [Smith] the proprietor of a bookstore, was convicted in a California Municipal Court under a Los Angeles city ordinance which makes it unlawful ‘for any person to have in his possession any obscene or indecent writing, [or] book … in any place of business where … books … are sold or kept for sale.’ The offense was defined by the Municipal Court, and by the Appellate Department of the Superior Court, which affirmed the Municipal Court judgment imposing a jail sentence on [Smith], as consisting solely of the possession, in the appellant’s bookstore, of a certain book found upon judicial investigation to be obscene. The definition include no element of scienter – knowledge by appellant of the contents of the book – and thus the ordinance was construed as imposing a ‘strict’ or ‘absolute’ criminal liability. The appellant made timely objection below that if the ordinance were so construed it would be in conflict with the Constitution of the United States. This contention, together with other contentions based on the Constitution, was rejected, and the case comes here on appeal.”

The Issues in this case are these: 1. Did the California ordinance against obscene and indecent writing violate the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? 2. Did the California Municipal Court err by finding Smith ‘absolutely’ criminally liable?

The Holding in this case are these:
1. Did the California ordinance against obscene and indecent writing violate the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States?
Yes…
2. Did the California Municipal Court err by finding Smith ‘absolutely’ criminally liable?
Yes…

The Court Held: On the first issue the Court found that “the strict liability aspect of this law required that the bookstore owner know the character of every book he/she sell or possibly face criminal charges. This, the court says ‘imposes a severe limitation on the public’s access to constitutionally protected matter…” On the ‘absolute criminal liability: the Court found that “the existence of a mens rea (having knowledge of an action) is the rule of, rather than the exception to, the principles of Anglo-American criminal jurisprudence…” Because the store owner had no mens rea, he didn’t have physical knowledge of the character of the books he was selling, he had no ability to know he was committing a crime. Because the ‘strict liability’ aspect negatively impacts on the First Amendment, the Court found that the ‘strict liability’ aspect violated the First Amendment of potential customers because the store owner would have to highly limit his book selection for fear of criminal actions.

There were no dissenting opinions in this case

The significance of this case is this: The Court’s has said that there are ‘fundamental freedoms to speech and press’ because of this the Court finds that while ‘obscene’ material is not protected by the Constitution as speech, ordinances such as the one California tried to enforce encroached too far into the first amendment rights of the citizens, the Court ended with “It is plain to us that the ordinance in question, though aimed at obscene matter, has such a tendency to inhibit constitutionally protected expression that it cannot stand under the Constitution.”