Thursday, November 14, 2013

Roth v. United States case brief

Roth v. United States case brief summary
354 U.S. 476 (1957)

Certiorari was granted to a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where petitioners' convictions for violating a federal obscenity statute, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1461, and Cal. Penal Code § 311 (1955) were affirmed, to determine whether the federal statute violated U.S. Constitutional Amendment I and whether the state statute violated the Due Process Clause of U.S. Constitutional Amendment XIV.

Petitioners, New York and California mail-order businessmen, were convicted of mailing obscene materials under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1461 and Cal. Penal Code § 311 (1955). Petitioners appealed on grounds that the federal statute violated U.S. Constitutional Amendment I, and the state statute violated the Due Process Clause.

  • The Court concluded that obscenity was not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press. 
  • The court determined that the test of whether the materials were obscene was whether, to the average person applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appealed to prurient interest, and that the lower courts had applied the proper standard. 
  • Because the material was obscene, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1461 was a proper exercise of the postal power delegated to Congress to punish use of the mail for obscene material. 
  • The court noted that a lack of precision was not offensive to the requirements of due process, but that the statutes gave adequate notice of what constituted prohibited material. 
  • Cal. Penal Code § 311did not impermissibly interfere with the federal statute, but regulated activity not contemplated under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1461.


The judgments convicting petitioners of violating the state and federal obscenity laws were affirmed. The lower courts applied the correct standard to determine that the mailed materials were obscene, unprotected speech. The statutes were not unconstitutionally vague, and the state statute did not interfere with the federal power to regulate the United States mail service.

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