Freedom of Speech Narrative


This narrative is about the case of Miller vs. California, a case focused on issues with the First Amendment and how “free” free speech really is.  To start us off, let's talk about what free speech actually is.  Free speech means that anyone can say whatever they want whenever they want without fear of the government censoring them.  Along with actual verbal words, this rule can also apply to any other medium of expression capable of communicating a message including movies, art, writing and more.  After stating this, it does not mean you can freely say curse words, or openly display nude photos.  Free speech does give you the right to say or display whatever you want, for the most part, but there is some censoring that still has to take place, specifically in order to protect the average person from being exposed to unsavory materials.

In 1971, to help advertise his mail-order pornographic business, Marvin Miller decided that it would be a great idea to send out brochures, filled with pornography, to random people throughout California.  One day, some of these brochures ended up on the doorstep of a restaurant owner in Newport Beach, who promptly showed them to his mother and called the police with her to get Miller arrested.  With this, Miller was taken to court and his first trial of many began. 

At the beginning, Miller was tried by jury in the Superior Court of Orange County under the allegation of dealing out obscene brochures.  After looking over the evidence, the jury decided that Miller was guilty and he was planned to be given the proper punishment for his crime.  However, before that could happen, Miller appealed the case to the appellate division of superior court, saying that the jury's decision did not follow the national standard for judging obscene materials.  This ultimately lead to having his argument rejected and the jury's verdict affirmed.  From there, he tried to make another appeal, this time with the California Court of Appeals for the 3rd district.  They soon refused to review his case leaving him with no other choice but to go directly to the Supreme Court itself early in 1972 and request an order to have a higher court review the verdict of a lower court.  Once the case finally reached the Supreme Court, the constitutionality of how Miller and his work were being treated came under question.

Before any of the proceedings had ever transpired, the definition of what legally counted as “obscene” was relatively vague and subjective at best, which left room for a lot of open-ended interpretations and led to the confusion over how obscenity should be handled in the courtroom.  This evidently was one of the reasons why Miller felt that his brochures didn't actually break any laws. 

For this case, they created a new test on judging what material would be considered “unlawfully obscene.”  After realizing how poor the previous test was, this new test was made to leave little room for argument over how obscene material should be judged, which lead to the creation of the three-prong obscenity test or as it’s more commonly referred to as the “Miller Test”.

The Miller Test involves the use of three different criteria that must be met before any given work can be legally classified as obscene.  In the first prong we have the question of “does this material appeal to the prurient interest of the common people”?  That is to say, would a random captive audience find the material to be sexy or erotic?  For the second prong and question, they ask “does this material depict and/or describe sexual material that would be obviously offensive to the common people?” This is basically asking if they would be disgusted to see such a thing in public or receive it in private.  And for the third and final question “does this material as a whole lack any serious kind of scientific, artistic, literary, or political value and does it not have a reason for being explicit that goes beyond just the sake of being itself?  If the answer is yes to all of the above and only all-of-the-above, then the work is considered to be obscene and the case is treated as a criminal one from there on out.

At last, the country now had some proper guidelines for the legal debate over obscenity, allowing hundreds of stalled cases regarding it to surge forward into completion.  This ultimately lead to state governments having greater flexibility and speed on cracking down the censoring of obscene works.  As for what happened to the Miller vs. California case itself, they decided to just remand the whole thing, giving it right back to the lower courts for them to deal with, again.