Legal Principle at Issue
Whether the First Amendment prohibits criminal sanction for private possession of material deemed legally obscene.
The Supreme Court of the United States held that private possession of obscene material is constitutionally protected, overruling the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Petitioner’s possession of three films served as the basis for a conviction of “possession of obscene matter” in contravention of Georgia state law.
Importance of Case
Though agreeing that, under Roth v. United States (1957) (later superseded by Miller v. California (1973)), the government has a legitimate interest in addressing obscene material, the Court held that “the assertion of that interest cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” Moreover, the Court noted that this might be the first case where the whole basis of prosecution rested solely on private possession of obscene material.
Affirming the First Amendment right to “receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth,” along with the right to privacy, the Court stated: “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.” The ruling in this case was later slightly limited by Osborne v. Ohio (1990).