Miller v. California

Following is the case brief for Miller v. California, United States Supreme Court, (1973)

Case summary for Miller v. California:

  • Marvin Miller produced a mass mailing campaign advertising adult books and films he had available for sale.
  • Miller was convicted under the state’s criminal obscenity laws and appealed claiming his conduct was protected under the First Amendment.
  • The Supreme Court set out a new three-part test for determining whether or not material is obscene and remanded the case to the lower court for further consideration under the new standard.

Miller v. California Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Marvin Miller sent advertisements for adult books and films he had for sale through a mass mailing campaign which depicted sexual acts. Recipients who received the mail did not willingly request or grant permission to receive the mailed advertisements. California had a criminal obscenity statute which prohibited distribution of obscene materials. Miller was convicted under the state statute and appealed his conviction to the state court of appeals.

Procedural History:

California’s court of appeals upheld the lower court’s conviction and Miller appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The three-part test for obscenity, known as the Miller test, is: Whether the average person in the community would find the work as a whole, appeals to a prurient interest in sex? Whether the work depicts or describes sexual conduct, defined by the state law, in a patently offensive way? Whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value?

Issue and Holding:

Do mass mailings depicting sexual acts constitute obscenity, which is not afforded First Amendment protection? Yes.

Judgment:

The court of appeals decision was vacated and remanded to the lower court for further consideration under the new obscenity standard.

Reasoning:

The Court held that the states have a legitimate interest in prohibiting distribution of mass mailings depicting sexual acts to unwilling recipients since there exists a high risk the materials are offensive.  In addition, the Court confined the scope of state obscenity regulations to works which depict or describe sexual conduct. Prohibited conduct must be specifically defined by state law and must also be limited to works which, as a whole, appeal to a prurient interest in sex, portray sex in a patently offensive way and lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value.

The Court held the appropriate three-pronged test to apply in determining whether material is obscene is:

  1. Whether the average person would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (apply contemporary community standards as opposed to national standard);
  2. Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  3. Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Here, exploiting sex and nudity cannot be done with less limitation than live sex in public places. Depictions of sexual conduct must at least retain serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value to warrant protection under the First Amendment. This test does not excuse the states from outlining their own clear standards of what is prohibited. The decision of the court of appeals is vacated and remanded for further consideration under the new test announced by the Court.

The decision of the court of appeals is vacated and remanded for further consideration under the new test announced by the Court.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion(s):

Dissenting (Brennan):

California’s criminal statute is overbroad and unconstitutional.

Dissenting (Douglas):

Criminal prosecutions for obscenity should not be available unless the defendant publishes or distributes work previously deemed obscene in a civil proceeding.

Significance:

Miller v. California set out a new obscenity standard and is the current standard used today. The three-part test is also known as the miller test.

Student Resources:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/porn/prosecuting/overview.html
https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/413/15

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