obscenity | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Obscenity in criminal law generally refers to materials, such as images or writings, that are considered to be offensive or indecent, particularly in a sexual context.

The definition of obscenity can vary depending on the jurisdiction and legal context but generally involves an assessment of whether the material in question meets certain legal criteria.

The United States Supreme Court has established a three-part test for determining whether material is obscene and therefore not protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. This test, known as the Miller test, involves a determination of whether the material, taken as a whole, meets the following criteria:

      1. The material appeals to a prurient interest or shameful or morbid interest in sex. (“Prurient” refers to having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters).
      2. The material depicts or describes sexual conduct in a way that is offensive or lacks artistic, literary, political, or scientific value.
      3. The material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

If the material meets all three of these criteria, it may be considered obscene and therefore illegal to distribute or possess.

In addition to criminalizing the distribution or possession of obscene materials, some jurisdictions also prohibit the production or sale of obscene materials. The use of obscenity in public spaces, such as in a public display or performance, may also be subject to legal restrictions.

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Last Modified: 03/10/2023


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