Stanley v. Georgia

394 U.S. 557

Case Year: 1969

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Marshall

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Brennan, Douglas, Fortas, Harlan, Stewart, Warren, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Black


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Stewart


2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In the course of investigating Robert Stanley for illegal bookmaking, police obtained a warrant to search his home. The police found little evidence of gambling activity, but they did find three reels of film. After watching the movies, they arrested Stanley for possessing obscene material. Stanley's attorney challenged the seizure and arrest on the grounds that the law should not "punish mere private possession of obscene material"--that his client had the right to view whatever he wished in the privacy of his own home. The state argued that it had the right to seize obscene materials, as they were illegal to possess. Indeed, in previous decisions, the Court had said that states could regulate the dissemination of such obscene materials as movies and magazines.



... For reasons set forth below, we agree that the mere private possession of obscene matter cannot constitutionally be made a crime....

It is now well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.... This right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, ... is fundamental to our free society. Moreover, in the context of this case--a prosecution for mere possession of printed or filmed matter in the privacy of a person's own home--that right takes on an added dimension. For also fundamental is the right to be free, except in very limited circumstances, from unwanted governmental intrusions into one's privacy.... (See Griswold v. Connecticut. )

These are the rights that appellant is asserting in the case before us. He is asserting the right to read or observe what he pleases--the right to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home. He is asserting the right to be free from state inquiry into the contents of his library. Georgia contends that appellant does not have these rights, that there are certain types of materials that the individual may not read or even possess. Georgia justifies this assertion by arguing that the films in the present case are obscene. But we think that mere categorization of these films as "obscene" is insufficient justification for such a drastic invasion of personal liberties guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Whatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do not think they reach into the privacy of one's own home. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch. Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds.

And yet, in the face of these traditional notions of individual liberty, Georgia asserts the right to protect the individual's mind from the effects of obscenity. We are not certain that this argument amounts to anything more than the assertion that the State has the right to control the moral content of a person's thoughts. To some, this may be a noble purpose, but it is wholly inconsistent with the philosophy of the First Amendment.... Nor is it relevant that obscene materials in general, or the particular films before the Court, are arguably devoid of any ideological content. The line between transmission of ideas and mere entertainment is much too elusive for this Court to draw, if indeed such a line can be drawn at all. Whatever the power of the state to control public dissemination of ideas inimical to the public morality, it cannot constitutionally premise legislation on the desirability of controlling a person's private thoughts....

Finally, we are faced with the argument that prohibition of possession of obscene materials is a necessary incident to statutory schemes prohibiting distribution. That argument is based on alleged difficulties of proving an intent to distribute or in producing evidence of actual distribution. We are not convinced that such difficulties exist, but even if they did we do not think that they would justify infringement of the individual's right to read or observe what he pleases. Because that right is so fundamental to our scheme of individual liberty, its restriction may not be justified by the need to ease the administration of otherwise valid criminal laws....

We hold that the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit making mere private possession of obscene material a crime.*... As we have said, the States retain broad power to regulate obscenity; that power simply does not extend to mere possession by the individual in the privacy of his own home. Accordingly, the judgment of the court below is reversed and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Judgment reversed and case remanded.

*What we have said in no way infringes upon the power of the State or Federal Government to make possession of other items, such as narcotics, firearms, or stolen goods, a crime. Our holding in the present case turns upon the Georgia statute's infringement of fundamental liberties protected by the First Amendment. No First Amendment rights are involved in most statutes making mere possession a crime.