Butler v. Michigan

352 U.S. 380

Case Year: 1957

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Frankfurter

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Brennan, Burton, Clark, Douglas, Harlan, Minton, Reed, Warren


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


The adjudication of obscenity claims is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the 1950s the Supreme Court generally avoided the issue by adopting the British definition of obscenity, known as the Hicklin rule: "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort might fall."

While the Court clung to Hicklin, some lower U.S. courts were attempting to liberalize it or even reject it. Among the better-known examples of these attempts is United States v. One Book Entitled "Ulysses" by James Joyce (1934), in which Judge Augustus Hand argued that the proper standard should be whether the author intended to produce obscene materials. Diverse rulings from the lower courts, coupled with the Supreme Court's silence on the issue, began to have an effect. By the 1950s the pornography industry was flourishing in this country, with little restriction on who could buy or view such material. This situation led to a backlash, with irate citizens clamoring for tighter controls. Other individuals, however, particularly attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), pressured courts to move in precisely the opposite direction--to rule that the First Amendment covers all materials, including those previously adjudged obscene. The time had come to deal with the issue. In 1957 the Court took the case of Butler v. Michigan. The state law at issue made it a crime to distribute material "found to have a potentially deleterious influence on youth." Butler was convicted under this law for selling to an adult police officer a book that the trial judge found to have such a potential effect on youth.



... At trial Appellant moved to dismiss the proceeding on the claim that application of [the state law] unduly restricted freedom of speech as protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in that the statute (1) prohibited distribution of a book to the general public on the basis of the undesirable influence it may have upon youth; (2) damned a book and proscribed its sale merely because of some isolated passages that appeared objectionable when divorced from the book as a whole; and (3) failed to provide a sufficiently definite standard of guilt. After hearing the evidence, the trial judge denied the motion, and, in an oral opinion, held that "... the defendant is guilty because he sold a book in the City of Detroit containing this language [the passages deemed offensive], and also because the Court feels that even viewing the book as a whole, it [the objectionable language] was not necessary to the proper development of the theme of the book nor of the conflict expressed therein." Appellant was fined $100.

Pressing his federal claims, appellant applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Michigan. Although the State consented to the granting of the application "because the issues involved in this case are of great public interest, and because it appears that further clarification of the language of ... [the statute] is necessary," leave to appeal was denied. In view of this denial, the appeal is here from the Recorder's Court of Detroit. We noted probable jurisdiction.

Appellant's argument here took a wide sweep. We need not follow him. Thus, it is unnecessary to dissect the remarks of the trial judge in order to determine whether he construed [the law] to ban the distribution of books merely because certain of their passages, when viewed in isolation, were deemed objectionable....

It is clear on the record that appellant was convicted because Michigan... made it an offense for him to make available for the general reading public (and he in fact sold to a police officer) a book that the trial judge found to have a potentially deleterious influence upon youth. The State insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely, this is to burn the house to roast the pig. Indeed, the Solicitor General of Michigan has, with characteristic candor, advised the Court that Michigan has a statute specifically designed to protect its children against obscene matter "tending to the corruption of the morals of youth." But the appellant was not convicted for violating this statute.

We have before us legislation not reasonably restricted to the evil with which it is said to deal. The incidence of this enactment is to reduce the adult population of Michigan to reading only what is fit for children. It thereby arbitrarily curtails one of those liberties of the individual, now enshrined in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that history has attested as the indispensable conditions for the maintenance and progress of a free society. We are constrained to reverse this conviction.