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The Miller case

Related: censorship - prurience - erotic books - erotic fiction - American erotica - American censorship

The Miller case

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) was an important United States Supreme Court case involving the freedom of speech. The case was argued on January 18-19, 1972 and reargued November 7, 1972 and the 5-4 decision was issued on June 21, 1973. The decision reiterated that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment and established the Miller test for determining what constituted obscene material. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California [Oct 2004]

Miller test

The Miller test is the United States Supreme Court's test for determining whether speech or expression can be labelled obscene, in which case it is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and can be prohibited.

The Miller test was developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California. It has three parts:

The third condition is also known as the SLAPS test. The work is considered obscene only if all three conditions are satisfied.

For legal scholars, several issues are important. One is that the test allows for community standards rather than a national standard. What offends the average person in Crawford, Texas may differ from what offends the average person in San Francisco. The relevant community, however, is not defined. Some critics of obscenity law, such as Jonathan Wallace (http://www.spectacle.org/296/obscene.html) and William Huston (http://binghamton.publicaccesstv.net/story/2002/10/13/131517/97), argue that the existence of Miller proves that federal obscenity laws are in fact not defined, and thus unenforceable and legally dubious.

Another important issue is that Miller asks for an interpretation of what the "average" person finds offensive, rather than what the more sensitive persons in the community are offended by, as obscenity was defined by the previous test, the Hicklin test, stemming from the English precedent.

Because it allows for community standards and demands "serious" value, some worried that this test would make it easier to suppress speech and expression. They pointed out that it replaced a stricter test asking whether the speech or expression was "utterly without redeeming social value"--a much tougher standard than "serious" value. As used, however, the test generally makes it difficult to outlaw any form of expression. Even pornography, with the exception of child pornography, is argued to have some artistic or literary value.

In practice, pornography showing genitalia and sexual acts is not normally obscene according to the Miller test. For instance, in 2000 a jury took only a few minutes to clear Larry Peterman, Movie Buffs video store owner in Provo, Utah, which had often boasted of being one of the most conservative counties in the US. Researchers had shown that guests at the local Marriott hotel were disproportionately large consumers of pay-per-view pornographic material, obtaining far more material that way than the store was distributing [1] (http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/23/technology/23PORN.html?ex=1069736400&en=57fa1d3549a43013&ei=5070) [2] (http://lists.essential.org/pipermail/commercial-alert/2000/000042.html).

The advent of the Internet has made this definition more difficult to maintain; as material published on a web server in one place can be read by a person residing anywhere else where there is a computer with internet access, there is a question as to which jurisdiction should apply. The pending case United States of America v. Extreme Associates includes some content delivered purely over the Internet and may clarify the situation. This case includes a video called Forced Entry, which includes depictions of rape, murder, suffocation, beatings and urination in sexual contexts. Each of the components when considered alone, is not uncommon in sexual fantasy (murder probably being the least common) and, except for murder, feature routinely in sexual activities of varying proportions of the US population. Since part of the Miller purpose was to consider the effect on the members of the community who would see the material for sale on the street it's unclear how material which goes directly from a vendor to a residence and is never seen by the community will be judged. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_test [Apr 2005]

Prior history

The appellant (known only as Miller) in the case had conducted a mass mailing campaign to advertise the sale of illustrated books, euphemistically called "adult" material. He was found guilty by a California state court of having violated California Penal Code 311.2 (a), a misdemeanor, by knowingly distributing obscene matter. The conviction was affirmed by the Superior Court of California upon appeal. As stated in the preface to Chief Justice Warren Burger's majority opinion, the "Appellant's conviction was specifically based on his conduct in causing five unsolicited advertising brochures to be sent through the mail in an envelope addressed to a restaurant in Newport Beach, California. The envelope was opened by the manager of the restaurant and his mother. They had not requested the brochures and complained to the police." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California [Oct 2004]

According to the Court's decision, the materials in question "primarily ... consist[ed] of pictures and drawings very explicitly depicting men and women in groups of two or more engaging in a variety of sexual activities, with genitals often prominently displayed." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California [Oct 2004]

There were two main precedents used by the Court in its majority opinion. Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957) was used mainly as it applied to the holding that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966) was used as precedent for its extended test of what constitutes obscene material. The main point focused on by the opinion was the break Memoirs had with Roth in stating that in order to be categorized as obscene the material must "be utterly without redeeming social value." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California [Oct 2004]

The Roth Case [...]

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