“That’s Obscene!” It’s a phrase that’s tossed around regularly and depending on the context, can mean absolutely anything. Have you ever wondered, however, whether or not there is a codified/legal definition of “obscenity” or is it simply “in the eye of the beholder?” Turns out there is one – a legal definition that is – and it’s important that we have a clear understanding of this definition and the laws surrounding it so we can use them to protect our families.
What makes something qualify as being “obscene”?
According to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (Miller v. California), to be obscene a judge and/or jury must find:
1. The average person, when applying contemporary community standards, would find that a work – taken as a whole – appeals to the prurient interest. (prurient: Having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters; having, inclined to have, or characterized by lascivious or lustful thoughts, desires, etc.)
2. The work depicts or describes in a patently offensive ways, (once again as measured by contemporary community standards) “hardcore” sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable law.
3. That a reasonable person would find that the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value.
It’s not all that hard to identify most pornography as meeting the standard for being obscene – the primary problem with pornography is the lack of enforcement of the existing laws. But what about that questionable book that your student is required to read for their English class? What how about a theatrical presentation that pushes the boundaries? Would “community standards” be different in Bismarck, North Dakota, than in New York City?
Determining the nature of “community standards” is one of the primary challenges of determining obscenity and then comes the challenge of enforcing the existing laws.
But there is much each individual can do:
1. Know how obscenity laws work.
2. Encourage officials to enforce and prosecute for violations.
3. Be vigilant in your home, your schools, your community.
For more information on obscenity laws and how they can work for you, visit:
This is an excellent compilation of the law. Keep it on file for future reference.