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Supreme Court still cautious on efforts to define obscenity

The United States Supreme Court passed up an opportunity to broaden its definition of obscenity Wednesday. But the justices also gave no new support to purveyors of pornography. What they seemed to do was to leave the door open for continued debate on what kinds of speech should be shielded under the First Amendment of the Constitution -- and for possible further restrictions on speech not protected by the First Amendment.

In a 6-to-2 decision, the high tribunal said an appellate court went too far in striking down all of Washington State's ``moral nuisance'' law, rather than simply invalidating a section mentioning the word ``lust.''

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The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had struck down the 1982 state law, terming it too broad and warning that it could have suppressed material that was not obscene.

The Supreme Court's decision yesterday sends the case back to that court, directing it to limit its ruling to the law's use of the word ``lust.''

The decision comes in the wake of legislative and administrative moves at the national level to crack down on pornography -- particularly materials that exploit women and children.

The newly formed Attorney General's Commission on Pornography will study the effects of videotapes and cable television, which make sexually explicit materials widely available to youth. The commission will also assess whether there is link between the pornography distribution and organized crime.

On Tuesday the deputy US attorney general, Lowell Jensen, announced a crackdown on obscenity. But he also stressed that any measures to combat it must be ``consistent with constitutional guarantees'' of free speech.

Defining obscenity without infringing on First Amendment free-speech rights has been a difficult job for the courts.

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in part that material is obscene if local community standards determine that it appeals to prurient interests. This decision defined ``prurient'' as a morbid or depraved interest in sex or nudity. But Washington State's 1982 statute -- the law considered in yesterday's decision -- termed anything that incites lust as prurient.

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The federal appeals court which invalidated that law said that ``lust'' was a ``healthy, wholesome, human reaction common to millions of well-adjusted persons in our society.''

Associate Justice Byron R. White -- writing for the majority of the high court -- neither endorsed nor rejected that concept. But Justice White did allow that past Supreme Court decisions did not characterize as obscenity ``material that provoked only normal, healthy, sexual desires.''

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