What Is An Adult Theater Case Overview The case of Paris Adult Theatre v. Slaton revolves around the issue of whether sexually explicit material, specifically obscene films, can be constitutionally suppressed by the state. The legal action originated in 1970 when Lewis Slaton, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, filed civil complaints against two adult theaters and their owners for showing allegedly obscene films, “Magic Mirror” and “It All Comes Out in the End.” The prosecution claimed that the films violated state anti-obscenity laws and asked the court to declare them obscene and prohibit their screening.
Facts of the Case
Notices were posted at the entrances of the theaters, warning potential patrons that the content shown was intended for adults and might contain nudity. Admission was restricted to individuals over the age of 21. After watching the films, the trial court ruled them obscene, but allowed their screening on the basis that adults were forewarned of the content and minors were not admitted. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed this decision, asserting that obscenity couldn’t be shown publicly even if minors were excluded and adults were informed in advance. The theaters appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Opinion of the Court
Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court. The Court clarified that it aimed to define the scope within which states could regulate obscene material, emphasizing that such material is not protected by the First Amendment under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court rejected the notion that obscene, pornographic films are immune from state regulation merely because they are shown to consenting adults. It highlighted that while protecting minors from exposure to obscene material is essential, there are additional state interests involved.
The Court acknowledged that the connection between exposure to obscene material and antisocial behavior lacks conclusive scientific evidence. Yet, it asserted that the state could reasonably conclude such a connection existed. The Court argued that legitimate state interests exist in regulating the commercialization of obscenity to preserve public order, the quality of life, and public safety.
It was argued that individual free will should govern activities beyond First Amendment protections, but the Court countered that a laissez-faire approach wouldn’t apply to matters within state jurisdiction. The Court cited examples of regulations, such as securities laws and waste disposal, that protect individuals from potential harm.
The Court emphasized that states have a legitimate interest in regulating the distribution of obscene material, even among consenting adults. It stated that while states need not be a “super-legislature” for economic and social issues, they have a responsibility to maintain a decent society. The Court held that obscene material could be regulated within the framework of the First Amendment standards set forth in Miller v. California.
Justice Douglas dissented, disagreeing with the Court’s prior decisions that excluded obscenity from First Amendment protection. He argued that obscenity should not be treated as an exception and that individual tastes were too diverse to establish a clear definition. He maintained that offensive ideas were not subject to government control, and the Court should not suppress speech that offended some individuals temporarily in power.
Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Stewart and Marshall, also dissented. He expressed concerns about the difficulties of defining obscenity and questioned the constitutionality of wholly suppressing unprotected speech due to the potential erosion of protected speech. He argued that state interests could not justify the substantial damage to constitutional rights and the judicial system resulting from such suppression. Brennan advocated for a different approach that guaranteed freedom of expression while allowing regulation of distribution.
The Paris Adult Theatre v. Slaton case established that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. The Court upheld the power of states to regulate and suppress obscene material within limits that respect First Amendment rights. However, the case demonstrated the complexities of defining and regulating obscenity, leading to dissenting opinions that called for a more nuanced and protective approach toward freedom of expression.