Ginzburg v. United States ex rel. Mishkin/Dissent Stewart

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Ginzburg v. United State Mishkin/Dissent
Dissent by Potter Stewart
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

United States Supreme Court

383 U.S. 463

Ralph GINZBURG et al., Petitioners,  v.  UNITED STATES. Edward MISHKIN, Appellant,

Mr. Justice STEWART, dissenting.

Ralph Ginzburg has been sentenced to five years in prison for sending through the mail copies of a magazine, a pamphlet, and a book. There was testimony at his trial that these publications possess artistic and social merit. Personally, I have a hard time discerning any. Most of the material strikes me as both vulgar and unedifying. But if the First Amendment means anything, it means that a man cannot be sent to prison merely for distributing publications which offend a judge's esthetic sensibilities, mine or any other's.

Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime. Long ago those who wrote our First Amendment charted a different course. They believed a society can be truly strong only when it is truly free. In the realm of expression they put their faith, for better or for worse, in the enlightened choice of the people, free from the interference of a policeman's intrusive thumb or a judge's heavy hand. So it is that the Constitution protects coarse expression as well as refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance. A book worthless to me may convey something of value to my neighbor. In the free society to which our Constitution has committed us, it is for each to choose for himself.1

Because such is the mandate of our Constitution, there is room for only the most restricted view of this Court's decision in Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498. In that case the Court held that 'obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press.' Id., at 485, 77 S.Ct., at 1309. The Court there characterized obscenity as that which is 'utterly without redeeming social importance,' id., at 484, 77 S.Ct., at 1309, 'deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest,' id., at 487, 77 S.Ct., at 1310, and 'goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation of such matters.' Id., at 487, n. 20, 77 S.Ct., at 1310.2 In Manual Enterprises v. Day, 370 U.S. 478, 82 S.Ct. 1432, 8 L.Ed.2d 639, I joined Mr. Justice Harlan's opinion adding 'patent indecency' as a further essential element of that which is not constitutionally protected.

There does exist a distinct and easily identifiable class of material in which all of these elements coalesce. It is that, and that alone, which I think government may constitutionally suppress, whether by criminal or civil sanctions. I have referred to such material before as hardcore pornography, without trying further to define it. Jacobellis v. State of Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, at 197, 84 S.Ct. 1676, at 1683 (concurring opinion). In order to prevent any possible misunderstanding, I have set out in the margin a description, borrowed from the Solicitor General's brief, of the kind of thing to which I have reference.3 See also Lockhart and McClure, Censorship of Obscenity: The Developing Constitutional Standards, 45 Minn.L.Rev. 5, 63—64.

Although arguments can be made to the contrary, I accept the proposition that the general dissemination of matter of this description may be suppressed under valid laws.4 That has long been the almost universal judgment of our society. See Roth v. United States, 354 U.S., at 485, 77 S.Ct., at 1309. But material of this sort is wholly different from the publications mailed by Ginzburg in the present case, and different not in degree but in kind.

The Court today appears to concede that the materials Ginzburg mailed were themselves protected by the First Amendment. But, the Court says, Ginzburg can still be sentenced to five years in prison for mailing them. Why? Because, says the Court, he was guilty of 'commercial exploitation,' of 'pandering,' and of 'titillation.' But Ginzburg was not charged with 'commercial exploitation'; he was not charged with 'pandering'; he was not charged with 'titillation.' Therefore, to affirm his conviction now on any of those grounds, even if otherwise valid, is to deny him due process of law. Cole v. State of Arkansas, 333 U.S. 196, 68 S.Ct. 514, 92 L.Ed. 644. But those grounds are not, of course, otherwise valid. Neither the statute under which Ginzburg was convicted nor any other federal statute I know of makes 'commercial exploitation' or 'pandering' or 'titillation' a criminal offense. And any criminal law that sought to do so in the terms so elusively defined by the Court would, of course, be unconstitutionally vague and therefore void. All of these matters are developed in the dissenting opinions of my Brethren, and I simply note here that I fully agree with them.

For me, however, there is another aspect of the Court's opinion in this case that is even more regrettable. Today the Court assumes the power to deny Ralph Ginzburg the protection of the First Amendment because it disapproves of his 'sordid business.' That is a power the Court does not possess. For the First Amendment protects us all with an even hand. It applies to Ralph Ginzburg with no less completeness and force than to G. P. Putnam's Sons.5 In upholding and enforcing the Bill of Rights, this Court has no power to pick or to choose. When we lose sight of that fixed star of constitutional adjudication, we lose our way. For then we forsake a government of law and are left with government by Big Brother.

I dissent.


^1  Different constitutional questions would arise in a case involving an assault upon individual privacy by publication in a manner so blatant or obtrusive as to make it difficult or impossible for an unwilling individual to avoid exposure to it. Cf. e.g., Breard v. City of Alexandria, 341 U.S. 622, 71 S.Ct. 920, 95 L.Ed. 1233; Public Utilities Commission of District of Columbia v. Pollak, 343 U.S. 451, 72 S.Ct. 813, 96 L.Ed. 1068; Griswold v. State of Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S.Ct. 1678, 14 L.Ed.2d 510. Still other considerations might come into play with respect to laws limited in their effect to those deemed insufficiently adult to make an informed choice. No such issues were tendered in this case.

^2 It is not accurate to say that the roth opinion 'fashioned standards' for obscenity, because, as the Court explicitly stated, no issue was there presented as to the obscenity of the material involved. 354 U.S., at 481, n. 8, 77 S.Ct., at 1307. And in no subsequent case has a majority of the Court been able to agree on any such 'standards.'

^3 '* * * Such materials include photographs, both still and motion picture, with no pretense of artistic value, graphically depicting acts of sexual intercourse, including various acts of sodomy and sadism, and sometimes involving several participants in scenes of orgy-like character. They also include strips of drawings in comic-book format grossly depicting similar activities in an exaggerated fashion. There are, in addition, pamphlets and booklets, sometimes with photographic illustrations, verbally describing such activities in a bizarre manner with no attempt whatsoever to afford portrayals of character or situation and with no pretense to literary value. All of this material * * * cannot conceivably be characterized as embodying communication of ideas or artistic values inviolate under the First Amendment. * * *'

^4 During oral argument we were advised by government counsel that the vast majority of prosecutions under this statute involve material of this nature. Such prosecutions usually result in guilty pleas and never come to this Court.

^5 See A Book Named 'John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, 86 S.Ct. 975.

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).