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May 23, 1977



Author: Blackmun

[ 431 U.S. Page 292]

 MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), this Court rejected a plea for a uniform national standard as to what

[ 431 U.S. Page 293]

     appeals to the prurient interest and as to what is patently offensive; the Court held, instead, that these essentially were questions of fact to be measured by contemporary standards of the community. Id., at 30-34. The instant case presents the issue of the constitutional effect of state law that leaves unregulated the distribution of obscene material to adults, on the determination of contemporary community standards in a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1461 for a mailing that is wholly intrastate. The case also raises the question whether § 1461 is unconstitutionally vague as applied in these circumstances, and the question whether the trial court, during the voir dire of prospective jurors, correctly refused to ask proffered questions relating to community standards.


Between February and October 1974 petitioner, Jerry Lee Smith, knowingly caused to be mailed various materials from Des Moines, Iowa, to post office box addresses in Mount Ayr and Guthrie Center, two communities in southern Iowa. This was done at the written request of postal inspectors using fictitious names. The materials so mailed were delivered through the United States postal system to the respective postmasters serving the addresses. The mailings consisted of (1) issues of "Intrigue" magazine, depicting nude males and females engaged in masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual intercourse; (2) a film entitled "Lovelace," depicting a nude male and a nude female engaged in masturbation and simulated acts of fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual intercourse; and (3) a film entitled "Terrorized Virgin," depicting two nude males and a nude female engaged in fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual intercourse.


For many years prior to 1974 the statutes of Iowa made it a misdemeanor to sell or offer to sell or to give away "any obscene, lewd, indecent, lascivious, or filthy book, pamphlet,

[ 431 U.S. Page 294]

     paper,... picture, photograph, writing..." or to deposit in any post office within Iowa any article of that kind. Iowa Code §§ 725.5 and 725.6 (1973).

In 1973, however, the Supreme Court of Iowa, in response to the standards enunciated in Miller v. California, supra, unanimously held that a related and companion Iowa statute, § 725.3 of the 1973 Code, prohibiting the presentation of any obscene or immoral drama, play, exhibition, or entertainment, was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. State v. Wedelstedt, 213 N.W. 2d 652.*fn1 Wedelstedt, at least by implication - and we so assume - invalidated §§ 725.5 and 725.6 as well.

On July 1, 1974, Laws of Iowa 1974, cc. 1267 and 1268, became effective. These specifically repealed §§ 725.3, 725.5, and 725.6 of the 1973 Code. In addition, however, c. 1267 (thereafter codified as the first 10 sections of c. 725 of the 1975 Iowa Code) defined, among other things, "obscene material," and made it "a public offense" to disseminate obscene material to minors (defined as persons "under the age of eighteen"). Dissemination of obscene material to adults was not made criminal or even proscribed. Section 9*fn2 of c. 1267 (now § 725.9 of the 1975 Code) insured that the law would be applied uniformly throughout the State, and that no lesser

[ 431 U.S. Page 295]

     governmental unit would impose more stringent regulations on obscene material.

In 1976, the Iowa Legislature enacted a "complete revision" of the State's "substantive criminal laws." This is entitled the "Iowa Criminal Code" and is generally effective January 1, 1978. The existing definition of "obscene material" remains unchanged, but a new provision, § 2804 of the Criminal Code, Iowa Code Ann. (Spec. Pamphlet 1977), although limited in scope, applies by its terms to adults. It reads: S

"Any person who knowingly sells or offers for sale material depicting a sex act involving sado-masochistic abuse, excretory functions, a child, or bestiality which the average adult taking the material as a whole in applying contemporary community standards would find that it appeals to the prurient interest and is patently offensive; and the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political, or artistic value shall, upon conviction be guilty of a simple misdemeanor."I

In summary, therefore, we have in Iowa (1) until 1973 state statutes that proscribed generally the dissemination of obscene writings and pictures; (2) the judicial nullification of some of those statutory provisions in that year for reasons of overbreadth and vagueness; (3) the enactment, effective July 1, 1974, of replacement obscenity statutes restricted in their application to dissemination to minors; and (4) the enactment in 1976 of a new Code, effective in 1978, with obscenity provisions, somewhat limited in scope, but not restricted in application to dissemination to minors.

Petitioner's mailings, described above and forming the basis of his federal prosecution, took place in 1974, after the theretofore existing Iowa statutes relating to obscene material had been nullified by Wedelstedt, but obviously before the 1976 legislation imposing misdemeanor liability with respect to certain transactions with adults becomes effective. Because

[ 431 U.S. Page 296]

     there is no contention that the materials petitioner mailed went to any minor, the 1974 legislation has no application to his case. And the 1976 legislation, of course, has no effect on petitioner's criminal liability. Cf. Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977).

Thus, what petitioner did clearly was not a violation of state law at the time he did it. It is to be observed, also, that there is no suggestion that petitioner's mailings went to any non-consenting adult or that they were interstate.


Petitioner was indicted on seven counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1461, which prohibits the mailing of obscene materials.*fn3 He pleaded not guilty. At the start of his trial petitioner proposed and submitted six questions for voir dire.*fn4

[ 431 U.S. Page 297]

     The court accepted in substance and utilized the first question; this was designed to reveal whether any juror was connected with an organization devoted to regulating or banning obscene materials. The court declined to ask the other five. One of the questions made inquiry as to whether the jurors had any knowledge of contemporary community standards in the Southern District of Iowa with regard to the depiction of sex and nudity. Two sought to isolate the source of the jurors' knowledge and their understanding of those standards. The remaining two would have explored the jurors' knowledge of Iowa law on the subject.

At the trial the Government introduced into evidence the actual materials covered by the indictment. It offered nothing else on the issue of obscenity vel non. Petitioner did not testify. Instead, in defense, he introduced numerous sexually explicit materials that were available for purchase at "adult" bookstores in Des Moines and Davenport, Iowa, several advertisements from the Des Moines Register and Tribune, and a copy of what was then c. 725 of the Iowa Code, prohibiting the dissemination of "obscene material" only to minors. At the close of the Government's case, and again at the close of all the evidence, petitioner moved for a directed verdict of acquittal on the grounds, inter alia, that the Iowa obscenity statute, proscribing only the dissemination of obscene materials to minors, set forth the applicable community standard, and that the prosecution had not proved that the materials at issue offended that standard.

The District Court denied those motions and submitted the case to the jury. The court instructed the jury that contemporary community standards were set by what is in fact

[ 431 U.S. Page 298]

     accepted in the community as a whole. In making that determination, the jurors were entitled to draw on their own knowledge of the views of the average person in the community as well as the evidence presented as to the state law on obscenity and as to materials available for purchase. App. 22-23.

The jury found petitioner guilty on all seven counts. He was sentenced to concurrent three-year terms of imprisonment, all but three months of which were suspended, and three years' probation.

In his motion for a new trial, petitioner again asserted that Iowa law defined the community standard in a § 1461 prosecution. In denying this motion, the District Court held that § 1461 was "a federal law which neither incorporates nor depends upon the laws of the states," App. 33; the federal policy was simply different in this area. Furthermore, the court observed, Iowa's decision not to regulate distribution of obscene material did not mean that the people of Iowa necessarily "approve[d] of the permitted conduct," ibid.; whether they did was a question of fact for the jury. The court rejected petitioner's argument that it was error not to ask the jurors the question about the extent of their knowledge of contemporary community standards. It held that the jurors were entitled to draw on their own knowledge; voir dire on community standards would be no more appropriate than voir dire on the jurors' concept of "reasonableness." The court refused to hold that the Government was required to introduce evidence on a community standard in order to sustain its burden of proof. The materials introduced "can and do speak for themselves." Id., at 34. The court did not address petitioner's vagueness point.*fn5

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit,

[ 431 U.S. Page 299]

     by per curiam opinion, agreed with the District Court that the question submitted by petitioner on community standards, except for the first, wee impermissible, since they concerned the ultimate question of guilt or innocence rather than juror qualification. The court noted, however, that it was not holding that no questions whatsoever could be asked in that area. With respect to the effect of state law, the court held that the issue of offense to contemporary community standards was a federal question, and was to be determined by the jury in a federal prosecution. The court noted the admission of Iowa's obscenity statute into evidence but stated that this was designed to give the jury knowledge of the State's policy on obscenity when it determined the contemporary community standard. The state policy was not controlling, since the determination was for the jury. The conviction, therefore, was affirmed.

We granted certiorari in order to review the relationship between state legislation regulating or refusing to regulate the distribution of obscene material, and the determination of contemporary community standards in a federal prosecution. 426 U.S. 946 (1976).


The "basic guidelines" for the trier of fact in a state obscenity prosecution were set out in Miller v. California in the form of a three-part test: S

"(a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest...;

(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, ...

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