1957 June 24

Obscenity Not Protected by the First Amendment: “Roth v. United States”


In the first major Supreme Court decision on obscenity, the Court in Roth v. United States held on this day that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment. The case involved Samuel Roth, a famous “literary outlaw” who had a long career publishing erotica and was arrested on several occasions. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

With respect to sexually explicit material and the First Amendment, however, the Roth case was only the beginning. Over the next 15 years, the Supreme Court wrestled with how to apply the “Roth standard” to particular cases, and, with only some exceptions, steadily increased the boundaries of freedom of expression for sexually related material. Within a few years, famous novels that had long been unavailable legally in the United States, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover (July 21, 1959) and Tropic of Cancer (August 11, 1961; June 22, 1964) were declared not obscene.

The most important post-Roth decision is Miller v. California, decided on June 21, 1973, which established the “Miller Test.”

The Court: “. . . obscenity is not expression protected by the First Amendment.”

Learn more about the case: Whitney Strub, Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle Over Sexual Expression (2013)

Learn about Samuel Roth and his career: http://www.librarything.com/profile/SamuelRoth

Learn more: Charles Rembar, The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill (1968)

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