On this day in 1957, Roth v United States was decided incorrectly. It was one of the major “obscenity” cases. This was the one that said that Congress could pass laws banning material “utterly without redeeming social importance.” It was later superseded by Miller v California, in the sense of coming up with yet another definition of obscenity as anything that lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Of course the question remains who is to decide. And how does any of this affect society when we aren’t talking about public expressions.
The case was about Samuel Roth, the publisher of American Aphrodite. I’ve used an image of one of its covers to give you an idea of just how “horrible” it was. And it wasn’t sold in supermarkets; it was a mail order magazine. It was mostly erotic stories. That perhaps is the biggest American disease: the compulsion to stick our noses in other people’s business. Banning erotica is a minor sin compared to our general tendency to invade any country that doesn’t do exactly what we want.
Regardless, who gets to decide what has merit is always the same: the power elite. And I find it amazing that today, the people who want to ban things like American Aphrodite are also the people who want to ban abortion and then scream about how big and intrusive the government is. As I always say: I’m a First Amendment absolutist. Only two justices agreed with me, Hugo Black and William Douglas. It makes me think back to the Soviet Union where political dissidents were put in insane asylums. So if Thomas Paine were writing today, the government would just decide that his work lacked “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Problem solved!
We mark this dark day — one of many — 58 years ago when another piece of the First Amendment was carved out.