Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966)
Summary of the Facts
The case involved the appellee William I. Cowin, the Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts. The prosecutor had filed a civil equity action against Cleland’s novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), claiming obscenity. The appellant was a book entitled John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure; however, the publisher intervened. At the hearing evidence and expert witnesses were introduce to dissect the book and prove or disapprove claims of obscenity. Under the Roth ruling, the court could declare a book obscene if it had no redeeming social value, appealed to prurient interests or was patently offensive (“Memoirs v. Massachusetts 1966”) .
The issue that this case was whether Fanny Hill was without redeeming social value hence not protected by the First or Fourteenth Amendments as a form of speech.
In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the book.
Justice Brennan wrote the Opinion of the Court to answer the question whether Fanny Hill had no redeeming social value. Justice Brennan wrote that The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had made a mistake by claiming that as long as a book appeals to prurient interest, it does not have to be unqualifiedly worthless for the court to declare it obscene (“Memoirs v. Massachusetts 1966”). A book cannot be declared obscene unless it has no redeeming social value, even if it was found to have requisite prurient appeal and was patently offensive (“Memoirs v. Massachusetts 1966”) . The court has to consider the three federal constitutional criteria independent of each other. Therefore, the social value of the book cannot be weighed against or canceled by any of the others (“Memoirs v. Massachusetts 1966”). Therefore, even though the book had only a modicum of social value, it could not be proscribed.
Justice Tom C. Clark voiced the strongest dissent and claimed that the social value of a book is such a small step to truth, which means that its benefit is outweighed social interest in order and morality. Therefore, three federal criteria can be weighed against each other and can cancel one another. Moreover, the dominant theme of the book has to be evaluated as a whole, and since John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure had only a modicum of social value, it had to be downright obscene.
Journal Article Summary
Boyce, Bret. “Obscenity and Community Standards.” Yale Journal of International Law vol.33, no. 2, 2008, pp. 300-362. digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1343&context=yjil. Accessed April 9, 2017.
The article explores to what extent the Constitution protects the freedom of expression especially regarding what is considered obscenity. The author recognizes how the constitution contradicts itself regarding the grounds for proscribing obscene speech. Boyce notes the cardinal constitutional principle that expression may not be restricted based on the fact that it is unpopular or offensive to the people. According to the Supreme Court, the claim of the society that speech is offensive does not offer sufficient reason to suppress it and guarantees more protection.
However, Boyce notes that the Court uses the same grounds of offensiveness to censor obscene material. Obscene materials are denied the protection of the First Amendment since they are considered too offensive for the contemporary moral standards. The article explores the history of obscenity in Christianity and the Victorian era among others. Moreover, he evaluates the obscenity law in the US and Canada. In addition, Boyce tries to analyze the problems with community standards by exploring the question of whether sexual expression is constitutionally protected. The author concludes by delving into details to ascertain whether obscenity causes any harm.
Boyce, Bret. “Obscenity and Community Standards.” Yale Journal of International Law vol.33, no. 2 (2008): pp. 300-362. digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1343&context=yjil. Accessed April 9, 2017.
“Memoirs v. Massachusetts 1966.” 2017. Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/383/413#writing-USSC_CR_0383_0413_ZD.
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