Roth v. United States
The U.S. Supreme Court case, Roth v. United States, established the standard for obscenity in printed material as that which would corrupt those whose minds are open to it. The 6-3 decision established a new test for determining what can be classified as obscene.
The First Amendment of the Constitution does not protect obscene material as free speech, the Court decided in this case.
Roth, the publisher of an erotic literary periodical from New York, and Alberts, who had a California mail-order business of erotic nude photos, were both charged with violation of state laws that relied on standards set in England in 1868 by the case Regina v. Hicklin. That case determined that Hicklin’s publications were not gratuitously obscene but rather contained obscene material in order to prove a point. In the United States, the Hicklin Rule (based on the court case) gave rise to Comstock Laws in the 1870s which forbade the publishing and dissemination (specifically shipping through the mail) of obscene material as well as material pertaining to birth control.
The Roth case caused the Supreme Court to establish a more modern definition of obscenity that included applying social standards to determine if the publication or image had any redeeming social value. This standard was applied by the following guidelines: appealing to prurient interests, having no socially redeeming value, and being patently offensive.
Following the Roth decision, the 1966 case Memoirs v. Massachusetts further tested the Roth rule. The publication in question during Memoirs was a 1749 book called Fanny Hill which cleared one of the three guidelines but could not be classified as absent of all socially redeeming value (unless it were marketed strictly for its obscene content).
The 1973 case Miller v. California clarified the court’s standard by establishing the SLAP test for obscenity: Serious, Literary, Artistic, Political, or Scientific value.