Stanley v. Georgia

Following is the case brief for Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969)

Case Summary of Stanley v. Georgia:

  • Police obtained a warrant to search Stanley’s home for evidence of bookmaking activities.
  • Police then came across an obscene film, and they seized it.
  • Stanley was later convicted criminally for possessing the obscene material, and the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the conviction.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  It held that the First Amendment prohibits making mere private possession of obscene material a crime.

Stanley v. Georgia Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Police obtained a warrant to search Stanley’s house for alleged bookmaking activities.  During the search of the home, the police found little in the way of bookmaking activities, but found three reels of eight-millimeter film.

The police then used a projector found in the house to view the film.  Once they determined the films were obscene, they seized the films and arrested Stanley.  Stanley was later indicted for knowingly possessing obscene material in violation of Georgia’s obscenity law.

Procedural History:

  • Stanley was tried before a jury and convicted.
  • The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the conviction.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court noted probable jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

Issue and Holding:

Does a law that punishes the mere possession of obscene material violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The First Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits making mere private possession of obscene material a crime.

Reasoning:

Although the Court previously held that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment in Roth v. United States, that case did not look into the context of where the material was found.  In this case, the crime was mere private possession of the material.  The Constitution protects our right to receive information and ideas, and the makers of the Constitution conferred, as against the Government, the “right to be let alone,” as the Court recognized in Olmstead v. United States.

Accordingly, “[w]hatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do not think they reach into the privacy of one’s own home.  If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.  Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.”

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Black):

The mere possession of reading matter or movies, whether obscene or not, cannot be made a crime without violating the First Amendment.

Concurring Opinion (Stewart):

In a rush to reach the First Amendment issue in this case, the Court majority entirely misses the fact that the police in this case violated the Fourth Amendment.  The police had a warrant to search Stanley’s house for bookmaking material.  Upon finding the film, the police had no authority to look further at that film, because it had no relation to bookmaking activities.  Simply stated, the viewing and seizure of the film went beyond the warrant, and thus was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Significance:

Stanley v. Georgia is significant because it established freedom to possess whatever material one wishes in the privacy of one’s own home.  The case still allows for regulation of distribution or creation of obscene material, but if one is able to obtain obscene material without running afoul of the law, possessing the material cannot be a crime.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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