Defining Obscenity: "Banned in Boston"
We begin this section by reviewing the disputes over the legal and governmental definitions of pornography as they have been argued in presidential commissions and in the highest courts in the country. Then we look at how those same debates are discussed among the scholars and activists who try to influence the country’s policies toward pornography. We also examine the basic claim of modern opponents of pornography:
that pornography is harmful in its effects on individuals and society as a whole. Finally, we examine the public’s attitudes toward pornography.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, enacted in 1791, includes the words: “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Ever since, the court system has struggled with the meaning of those words, for it is obvious that they cannot be taken literally; we do not have the right to make false claims about other people, lie in court under oath, or, in the most famous example, “yell ‘fire’ (falsely) in a crowded theater,” even though that limits our freedom of speech.
Court cases in the United States have established the following three-part definition of obscenity that has determined how courts define pornography. For something to be obscene it must (1) appeal to the prurient (PRURE-ee-ent) interest; (2) offend contemporary community standards; and (3) lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.