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Stanley v. Georgia Legal Brief

Stanley v. Georgia 394 U.S. 557
Vote: 9-0

The facts of the case are these: Officers entered the Stanley home after obtaining a search warrant on suspicion of book-making. Upon entrance to the home and into the bedroom of Mr. Stanley officers found films; upon viewing of the films the police found them to be of an “obscene manner” in violation of Georgia Law. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the ruling, holding that: “…not essential to an indictment charging one with possession of obscene matter that is alleged that such possession was “with intent to sell, expose, or circulate the same.” The appellant contends that the Georgia law is unconstitutional because it punishes mere private possession of obscene matter. Georgia relying on Roth v. United States argues the law’s validity on the ground that “obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press.” The case makes it way to the Supreme Court upon acceptance of the writ.

The issues of the case are these: 1. Is Georgia’s obscenity law a violation of the First Amendment?

The Supreme Court in this case held that 1. “The First Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth prohibits making mere private possession of obscene material a crime.” The Court found that (a) “neither Roth, supra, nor subsequent decisions of the Court were made in the context of a statute punishing mere private possession of obscene material, but involved governmental power to prohibit or regulate certain public actions respecting obscene matter. (b) the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, and to be generally free from governmental intrusions into one’s privacy and control of one’s thoughts. (c) The state may not prohibit mere possession of obscene matter on the ground that it may lead to antisocial conduct, Roth, supra, distinguished, or proscribe such possession on the ground that it is a necessary incident to a statutory scheme prohibiting distribution. 

The Court in this case written by Chief Justice Marshall, found that the “mere private possession of ‘obscene material’ cannot be made illegal without violating the First Amendment.” The Court said: “The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized man. (Olmstead v. United States)”

The Court offered this opinion unanimously, with Chief Justice John Marshall writing for the Majority and Justice Black and Justice Stewart writing concurring opinions.

The significance of this case is that the Government was pushed back further from interfering with the right of people to be left alone. Though the material may have been ‘obscene’ the mere possession of ‘obscene’ material is not enough to be illegal, as it is a person’s First Amendment right to the mere possession.