National Constitution CenterCenturies of Citizenship: A Constitutional Timeline Exhibit
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1955-1969: We demand liberty and justice for all

Does the First Amendment protect obscenity?

The Supreme Court has never interpreted freedom of speech to include obscenity, which is generally considered to fall outside the protection of the First Amendment. But the debate over what constitutes obscenity and how it should be regulated has long troubled Americans.


LINDA: Obscenity isn't just offensive. It can be dangerous, especially to women. Pornography threatens women and children, with who-knows-what monster lurking out there on the streets. If the government were doing its job to protect its citizens, then pornography would be against the law.

JOHN: The first amendment protects the right to all expression, whether or not you happen to like what other people have to say.

LINDA: Oh, come on. Everyone knows the difference between pornography and free expression.

JOHN: Well if it’s so obvious why do we need the Supreme Court to sort these cases out?

LINDA: Because of people like you who start crying about the First Amendment whenever some two-bit pornographer gets shut down! The First Amendment was designed to protect the freedom to express political views and opinions. Pornography has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

JOHN: It is a form of expression, and in this country we protect all kinds of expression, even when we don’t like what’s being expressed. Because what we are really protecting isn't words or images…it's freedom!

LINDA: Come on, you know there are all sorts of things we're not allowed to do or say. The Supreme Court says plainly that obscene material doesn't get First Amendment protection.

JOHN: But what's "obscene"? The Court doesn't really say what makes something obscene.

LINDA: Pornography degrades women, encourages violence against women, exploits the weakest members of society and puts children in danger. Am I getting close?

JOHN: Look, there are plenty of books out there that demean women - even "great works of literature." What about movies and TV shows that glamorize guns and violence? Or comedians who use foul language. Where do you draw the line?

LINDA: There have always been obscenity laws in America. You don't really have to define it. The government should just draw the line where good sense says you should draw the line.

JOHN: Well, I guess I'm just a lot more comfortable with the people using their own good sense than I am with the government trying to be everybody's conscience.

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