They’ll “Know it when they See it,” but what is *it*?

Who gets to decide what is “appropriate” to say? For much of the 20th century, the answer to that question was the Supreme Court. Freedom for the Thought that we Hate by Anthony Lewis details several Supreme Court cases that ruled on cases of obscenity, profanity, and pornography as they related to free speech.

Cases ranged from a jacket with profanity written on it to Ulysses, a book with a scene about masturbation to movies with graphic sexual encounters. Some involved rulings where people had been convicted for obscenity, while others were rulings on whether creations would be allowed to be distributed. Though many of these were done on a case-by-case basis – the judges would sit in a room and watch pornographic scenes to rule on them –  they set precedent for what else could be considered obscenity and therefore censored.

But where is the line of obscenity if the justices do not even have a set one? During the case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart stated, “I know it when I see it,” in reference to pornography. This makes it clear that the definition of obscenity or pornography is not black and white, and therefore no ruling by the court can be considered absolute. The larger question, however, is whether censorship by the Supreme Court, whether the subject is obscene or not, is an obstruction of the first amendment. I agree with Justice William O. Douglas who, in the dissent of the case Roth v. United States, said that he had, “the same confidence in the ability of our people to reject noxious literature as I have in their capacity to sort out the true form the false in theology, economics, politics, or any other field.” Censorship not only violates the first amendment rights of the creators of such “obscene” material, but may inadvertently shape or show America to be purer than it may actually be and restricts information available to the American public. I believe that all information and creations should be available to be laid out in front of the individual so that they may decide what to consume rather than the government deciding that for them.

Efforts by the Supreme Court Justices to keep the American people moral and and righteous may be well intentioned, but, in my opinion, the results that have ended in censorship violate the first amendment.  If the court truly believes that they must be the gatekeeper of obscenity in this country because Americans cannot do it for themselves, perhaps that says more on their view of Americans than on the subjects of the cases.

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