Byrne v. Karalexis (396 U.S. 976)/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

396 U.S. 976

Byrne  v.  Karalexis

There may in time be a collision between the two systems for us to resolve. Meanwhile I would let the two orderly processes go ahead. For I can imagine no better and smoother accommodation of the needs of the two regimes than that designed by the District Court.

Underlying the state case and the federal case is an important First Amendment question. Some people think that 'obscenity' is not protected by the Free Speech and Free Press Clauses of the First Amendment. They believe that both Congress and the States can set up regimes of censorship to weed out 'obscenity' from literature, movies, and other publications so as to rid the press of what they the judges deem to be beyond the pale.

I have consistently dissented from that course but not because, as frequently charged, I relish 'obscenity.' I have dissented before and now because I think the First Amendment bars all kinds of censorship. Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 650, 88 S.Ct. 1274, 20 L.Ed.2d 195 (Douglas, J., dissenting); Ginzberg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463, 482, 86 S.Ct. 942, 16 L.Ed.2d 31 (Douglas, J., dissenting); Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 508, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498 (Douglas, J., dissenting). To impose a regime of censors requires, in my view, a constitutional amendment. 'Obscenity' is no exception. 'Obscenity' certainly was not an established exception to free speech and free press when the Bill of Rights was adopted. See my concurring opinion in Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, 428-433, 86 S.Ct. 975, 16 L.Ed.2d 1. It is a relatively new arrival on the American scene, propelled by dedicated zealots to cleanse all thought.

Prior to the Bill of Rights, state law, when it spoke of freedom of the press, meant only freedom from prior restraint. But an author or publishers could be held accountable for publishing what the state house thought was against 'the public good.' In other words, the First Amendment did not build on existing law; it broke with tradition, set a new standard, and exalted freedom of expression. There is no trace of a suggestion that 'obscenity,' however, defined, was excepted.

That does not mean that 'obscenity' is good or that it should be encouraged. It only means that we cannot be faithful to our constitutional mandate and allow any form or shadow of censorship over speech and press. [*]

When our rewards go to people for thinking alike, it is no surprise that we become frightened at those who take exception to the current consensus. Then the hue and cry go up for censors; and that is the start of an ominous trend. What can be done to literature under the banner of 'obscenity' can be done to other parts of the spectrum of ideas when party or majoritarian demands mount and propagandists start declaiming the law.

The 'obscenity' issue raises large questions. To what extent may government watch over one's shoulder as he reads? Judge Jerome Frank said in Roth v. Goldman, 2 Cir., 172 F.2d 788, 792:

'I think that no sane man thinks socially dangerous the arousing of normal sexual desires. Consequently, if reading obscene books has merely that consequence, Congress, it would seem, can constitutionally no more suppress such books than it can prevent the mailing of many other objects, such as perfumes, for example, which notoriously produce that result. But the constitutional power to suppress obscene publications might well exist if there were ample reason to believe that reading them conduces to socially harmful sexual conduct on the part of normal human beings. * * * Macaulay, replying to demands for suppression of obscene books, said: 'We find it difficult to believe that in a world so full of temptations as this, any gentleman, whose life would have been virtuous if he had not read Aristophanes and Juvenal, will be made vicious by reading them.' Substitute 'Waggish Tales from the Czech' for 'Aristophanes and Juvenal,' and those remarks become relevant here.'

If 'obscenity' can be carved out of the First Amendment, what other like exceptions can be created? Is 'sacrilege' also beyond the pale? Are utterances or publications made with 'malice' unprotected? How about 'seditious' speech or articles? False, scandalous, and malicious writings or utterances against the Congress or the President 'with intent to defame' or to bring them 'into contempt or disrepute' or to 'excite' against them 'the hatred of the good people' or 'to stir up sedition,' or to 'excite' people to 'resist, oppose or defeat' any law were once made a crime. (1 Stat. 596-597.) Now that the First Amendment applies to the States, Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 51 S.Ct. 532, 75 L.Ed. 1117; Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 51 S.Ct. 625, 75 L.Ed. 1357, may the States embark on such totalitarian controls over thought or over the press? May Congress do so?

We forget today that under our constitutional system neither Congress nor the States have any power to pass on the value, the propriety, the Americanism, the soundness of any idea or expression. It is that insulation from party or majoritarian control provided by the First Amendment-not our gross national product or mass production or pesticides or space ships or nuclear arsenal-that distinguishes our society from the other planetary regimes.

Opinion of Mr. Justice BLACK.

I agree completely with Mr. Justice Douglas that state criminal punishment of these respondents for showing an allegedly 'obscene' film is absolutely prohibited by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. That, however, does not end for me the constitutional problems involved. In this case a Federal District Court stepped into the middle of a pending state criminal prosecution, rendered an opinion in effect deciding the fundamental constitutional issue in the state case, and enjoined the initiation of new prosecutions of these defendants or the execution of any sentence imposed on them in the pending state case. One of the fundamental aspects of our federal constitutional system requires that federal courts refrain from interfering in pending state criminal prosecutions except in highly unusual and very limited circumstances. I do not think the facts of this case present an occasion for departure from that general rule. It is for that reason alone that I agree with the Court's decision to stay the injunction issued by the Federal District Court against the State.

Opinion of Mr. Justice STEWART.

Without reaching the First and Fourteenth Amendment issues discussed by Mr. Justice Black and Mr. Justice Douglas, I join the Court's decision to stay the injunction for the reason indicated by Mr. Justice Black-i. e., the general rule that 'requires that federal courts refrain from interfering in pending state criminal prosecutions. * * *' This case does not now present the 'highly unusual and very limited circumstances' that would justify a departure from that rule-such as would be presented by the threat or actuality of repetitive prosecutions for exhibition of the film in question.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).