Roth v. United States/Concurrence Warren

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Roth v. United States
Concurring Opinion by Earl Warren
87506Roth v. United States — Concurring OpinionEarl Warren
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion
Dissenting Opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN, concurring in the result.

I agree with the result reached by the Court in these cases, but, because we are operating in a field of expression and because broad language used here may eventually be applied to the arts and sciences and freedom of communication generally, I would limit our decision to the facts before us and to the validity of the statutes in question as applied.

Appellant Alberts was charged with willfully, unlawfully and lewdly disseminating obscene matter. Obscenity has been construed by the California courts to mean having a substantial tendency to corrupt by arousing lustful desires. People v. Wepplo, 78 Cal.App.2d Supp. 959, 178 P.2d 853. Petitioner Roth was indicted for unlawfully, willfully and knowingly mailing obscene material that was calculated to corrupt and debauch the minds and morals of those to whom it was sent. Each was accorded all the protections of a criminal trial. Among other things, they contend that the statutes under which they were convicted violate the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, press and communication. [p495]

That there is a social problem presented by obscenity is attested by the expression of the legislatures of the forty-eight States, as well as the Congress. To recognize the existence of a problem, however, does not require that we sustain any and all measures adopted to meet that problem. The history of the application of laws designed to suppress the obscene demonstrates convincingly that the power of government can be invoked under them against great art or literature, scientific treatises, or works exciting social controversy. Mistakes of the past prove that there is a strong countervailing interest to be considered in the freedoms guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The line dividing the salacious or pornographic from literature or science is not straight and unwavering. Present laws depend largely upon the effect that the materials may have upon those who receive them. It is manifest that the same object may have a different impact, varying according to the part of the community it reached. But there is more to these cases. It is not the book that is on trial; it is a person. The conduct of the defendant is the central issue, not the obscenity of a book or picture. The nature of the materials is, of course, relevant as an attribute of the defendant's conduct, but the materials are thus placed in context from which they draw color and character. A wholly different result might be reached in a different setting.

The personal element in these cases is seen most strongly in the requirement of scienter. Under the California law, the prohibited activity must be done "willfully and lewdly." The federal statute limits the crime to acts done "knowingly." In his charge to the jury, the district judge stated that the matter must be "calculated" to corrupt or debauch. The defendants in both these cases were engaged in the business of purveying textual or [p496] graphic matter openly advertised to appeal to the erotic interest of their customers. They were plainly engaged in the commercial exploitation of the morbid and shameful craving for materials with prurient effect. I believe that the State and Federal Governments can constitutionally punish such conduct. That is all that these cases present to us, and that is all we need to decide.

I agree with the Court's decision in its rejection of the other contentions raised by these defendants.