Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Sales Date: September 24, 2013
278 Pages, 5.50 x 8.50 in
- Published: September 2013
- Published: September 2013
- Published: April 2014
For some, he was “America’s leading smut king,” hauled into court repeatedly over thirty years for peddling obscene publications through the mail. But when Samuel Roth appealed a 1956 conviction, he forced the Supreme Court to finally come to grips with a problem that had plagued both American society and constitutional law for longer than he had been in business. For while the facts of Roth v. United States were unexceptional, its constitutional issues would define the relationship of obscenity to the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court’s 6–3 decision in Roth for the first time tried to definitively rule on the issue of obscenity in American life and law—and failed. In this first book-length examination of the case, Whitney Strub lays out the history of obscenity’s meaning as a legal concept, highlights the influence of antivice crusaders like Anthony Comstock and John Sumner, and chronicles the shadowy career that led Roth to spend nearly a decade of his life imprisoned for the allegedly obscene materials that he sent through the mails. Strub then unwraps the events that produced Roth v. United States, placing the trial in the context of its times—the Kinsey Reports, the Kefauver hearings, free speech debates—by using Roth’s own private papers along with the records of the various prosecutions and the memos of the justices.
The significance of Roth, as Strub reveals, lay in the two faces of Justice William Brennan’s majority opinion—which on the one hand reflected the liberalizing attitude toward sexual matters in mid-century America, but on the other kept “obscene” expressions beyond First Amendment protection. Because that ruling points up the contradictions of a society where the prurient and repressive commingle uncomfortably, Strub shows how Roth says much more about American sexual values than Brennan’s written words necessarily acknowledged.
In our era of internet pornography and Fifty Shades of Grey, it may be difficult to imagine a time when obscenity was a matter for the courts. As Strub tracks the legacy of Roth and obscenity law through the ongoing policing of acceptable sexuality into the twenty-first century, his riveting narrative brings those times to life and helps readers navigate the fine line between what is socially acceptable and what is criminally obscene.
"Strub elucidates the duplicity and paradoxes in attitudes toward sexuality in the United States by examining the ups and downs of related law. Highly recommended to those interested in free speech and obscenity, as well as to those interested in publishing, law, and culture, and the U.S. Supreme Court."—Library Journal
"Whitney Strub offers a valuable and insightful analysis of the Roth case and the evolution of American obscenity doctrine. It is thorough, written with his usual flair, and thoughtful. In sum, this is an impressive book that makes a significant contribution to the literature."—Journal of American Studies
“Strub combines a sweeping review of American history with the richness of biography and insightful analysis. He offers a deep and subtle understanding of the most significant Supreme Court case on obscenity, as well as a profound commentary on the complex, contradictory sexual politics of the decades since World War II.”—John D'Emilio, coauthor of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America
“An important and meticulously researched study of the pivotal case in the Supreme Court’s anguished attempts to balance the right of people to read, see, and hear what they wish against society’s interest in protecting itself.”—Laura Wittern-Keller, coauthor of The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court
“A first-rate cultural history and an important contribution to understanding the unsteady course of First and Fourth Amendment freedoms in the United States.”—Jay A. Gertzman, author of Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist
1. Toward Obscenity: Legal Evolution from Colonies to Comstock
2. Modernizing Free Speech: Politics, Sex, and the First Amendment in the Early Twentieth Century
3. Samuel Roth, From Art to Smut
4. The Absent Supreme Court: Obscenity Doctrine in the 1940s
5. Cold War, Hot Lust: Sexual Politics in the 1950s
6. Anatomy of a Case
7. Writing Roth: The Court Opines
8. The Two Roths: Liberalization, Regulation, and the Apparent Paradox of Obscenity in the 1960s
9. From Porno chic to New Critiques: Conservatives, Feminists, and Backlash to Obscenity
Epilogue: After Obscenity?
Major Cases Cited