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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

372 U.S. 58

Bantam Books, Inc.  v.  Sullivan

 Argued: Dec. 3 and 4, 1962. --- Decided: Feb 18, 1963

Mr. Justice HARLAN, dissenting.

The Court's opinion fails to give due consideration to what I regard as the central issue in this case-the accommodation that must be made between Rhode Island's concern with the problem of juvenile delinquency and the right of freedom of expression assured by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Three reasons, as I understand the Court's opinion, are given for holding the particular procedures adopted by the Rhode Island Commission under this statute, though not the statute itself, unconstitutional: (1) the Commission's activities, carried on under color of state law, amount to a scheme of governmental censorship; (2) its procedures lack adequate safeguards to protect nonobscene material against suppression; and (3) the group's operations in the field of youth morality may entail depriving the adult public of access to constitutionally protected material.

In my opinion, none of these reasons is of overriding weight in the context of what is obviously not an effort by the State to obstruct free expression but an attempt to cope with a most baffling social problem.

This Rhode Island Commission was formed for the laudable purpose of combatting juvenile delinquency. While there is as yet no consensus of scientific opinion on the causal relationship between youthful reading or viewing of 'the obscene' and delinquent behavior, see Green, Obscenity, Censorship, and Juvenile Delinquency, 14 U. of Toronto L.J. 229 (1962), Rhode Island's approach to the problem is not without respectable support, see S.Rep.No.2381, 84th Cong., 2d Sess. (1956); Kefauver, Obscene and Pornographic Literature and Juvenile Delinquency, 24 Fed.Prob. No. 4, p. 3 (Dec. 1960). The States should have a wide range of choice in dealing with such problems, Alberts v. State of California, decided with Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498 (separate opinion of the writer, at 500-502), and this Court should not interfere with state legislative judgments on them except upon the clearest showing of unconstitutionality.

I can find nothing in this record that justifies the view that Rhode Island has attempted to deal with this problem in an irresponsible way. I agree with the Court that the tenor of some of the Commission's letters and reports is subject to serious criticism, carrying as they do an air of authority which that body does not possess and conveying an impression of consequences which by no means may follow from noncooperation with the Commission. But these are things which could surely be cured by a word to the wise. They furnish no occasion for today's opaque pronouncements which leave the Commission in the dark as to the permissible constitutional scope of its future activities.

Given the validity of state obscenity laws, Alberts v. State of California, supra, I think the Commission is constitutionally entitled (1) to express its views on the character of any published reading or other material; (2) to endeavor to enlist the support of law enforcement authorities, or the cooperation of publishers and distributors, with respect to any material the Commission deems obscene; and (3) to notify publishers, distributors, and members of the public with respect to its activities in these regards; but that it must take care to refrain from the kind of overbearing utterances already referred to and others that might tend to give any person an erroneous impression as to either the extent of the Commission's authority or the consequences of a failure to heed its warnings. Since the decision of the Court does not require reinstatement of the broad injunction issued by the trial court, [1] and since the majority's opinion rests on the invalidity of the particular procedures the Commission has pursued, I find nothing in that opinion denying the Commission the right to conduct the activities, just enumerated, which I believe it is constitutionally entitled to carry on.

It is said that the Rhode Island procedures lack adequate safeguards against the suppression of the non-obscene, in that the Commission may pronounce publications obscene without any prior judicial determination or review. But the Commission's pronouncement in any given instance is not self-executing. Any affected distributor or publisher wishing to stand his ground on a particular publication may test the Commission's views by way of a declaratory judgment action [2] or suit for injunctive relief or by simply refusing to accept the Commission's opinion and awaiting criminal prosecution in respect of the questioned work.

That the Constitution requires no more is shown by this Court's decision in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago, 365 U.S. 43, 81 S.Ct. 391, 5 L.Ed.2d 403. There the petitioner refused to comply with a Chicago ordinance requiring that all motion pictures be examined and licensed by a city official prior to exhibition. It was contended that regardless of the obscenity vel non of any particular picture and the licensing standards employed, this requirement in itself amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint on free expression. Stating that there is no 'absolute freedom to exhibit, at least once, any and every kind of motion picture,' 365 U.S., at 46, 81 S.Ct., at 393, this Court rejected that contention and remitted the petitioner to a challenge of an application of the city ordinance to specific films. The Court thus refused to countenance a 'broadside attack' on a system of regulation designed to prevent the dissemination of obscene matter.

Certainly with respect to a sophisticated publisher or distributor, [3] and shorn of embellishing mandatory language, this Commission's advisory condemnation of particular publications does not create as great a danger of restraint on expression as that involved in Times Film, where exhibition of a film without a license was made a crime. [4] Nor can such danger be regarded as greater than that involved in the preadjudication impact of the sequestration procedures sustained by this Court in Kingsley Books, Inc. v. Brown, 354 U.S. 436, 77 S.Ct. 1325, 1 L.Ed.2d 1469. For here the Commission's action is attended by no legal sanctions and leaves distribution of the questioned material entirely undisturbed.

This case bears no resemblance to what the Court refused to sanction in Marcus v. Search Warrant of Property, 367 U.S. 717, 81 S.Ct. 1708, 6 L.Ed.2d 1127. There police officers, pursuant to Missouri procedures, seized in a one-day foray under search warrants some 11,000 copies of 280 publications found at the appellants' various places of business and believed by the officers to be obscene. The state court later found that only 100 out of the 280 publications actually were obscene. In holding 'that Missouri's procedures as applied * * * lacked the safeguards which due process demands to assure nonobscene material the constitutional protection to which it is entitled,' 367 U.S., at 731, 81 S.Ct., at 1716, the Court emphasized the historical connection between the search and seizure power and the stifling of liberty of expression. The Missouri warrants gave the broadest discretion to each executing officer and left to his ad hoc judgment on the spot, with little or no opportunity for discriminating deliberation, which publications should be seized as obscene. Since 'there was no step in the procedure before seizure designed to focus searchingly on the question of obscenity,' 367 U.S., at 732, 81 S.Ct., at 1716, it was to be expected that much of the material seized under these procedures would turn out not to be obscene, as indeed was later found by the state court in that very case.

No such hazards to free expression exist in the procedures I regard as permissible in the present case. Of cardinal importance, dissemination of a challenged publication is not physically or legally impeded in any way. Furthermore, the advisory condemnations complained of are the product not of hit-or-miss police action but of a deliberative body whose judgments are limited by standards embraced in the State's general obscenity statute, the constitutionality of which is not questioned in this case.

The validity of the foregoing considerations is not, in my opinion, affected by the state court findings that one of appellants' distributors was led to withdraw publications, thought obscene by the Commission, because of fear of criminal prosecution. For this record lacks an element without which those findings are not of controlling constitutional significance in the context of the competing state and individual interests here at stake: there is no showing that Rhode Island has put any roadblocks in the way of any distributor's or publisher's recourse to the courts to test the validity of the Commission's determination respecting any publication, or that the purpose of these procedures was to stifle freedom of expression.

It could not well be suggested, as I think the Court concedes, that a prosecutor's announcement that he intended to enforce strictly the obscenity laws or that he would proceed against a particular publication unless withdrawn from circulation amounted to an unconstitutional restraint upon freedom of expression, still less that such a restraint would occur from the mere existence of a criminal obscenity statute. Conceding that the restrictive effect of the Commission's procedures on publishers, and a fortiori on independent distributors, may be greater than in either of those situations, I do not believe that the differences are of constitutional import, in the absence of either of the two factors indicated in the preceding paragraph. The circumstance that places the Commission's permissible procedures on the same constitutional level as the illustrations just given is the fact that in each instance the courts are open to the person affected, and that any material, however questionable, may be freely sponsored, circulated, read, or viewed until judicially condemned.

In essence what the Court holds is that these publishers or their distributors need not, with respect to any material challenged by the Commission, vindicate their right to its protection in order to bring the Constitution to their aid. The effect of this holding is to cut into this effort of the State to get at the juvenile delinquency problem, without this Court or any other ever having concretely focused on whether any of the specific material called in question by the Commission is or is not entitled to protection under constitutional standards established by our decisions. [5]

This seems to me to weight the accommodation which should be made between the competing interests that this case presents entirely against the legitimate interests of the State. I believe that the correct course is to refuse to countenance this 'broadside attack' on these state procedures and, with an appropriate caveat as to the character of some of the Commission's past utterances, to remit the appellants to their remedies respecting particular publications challenged by the Commission, as was done in the Times Film case. Putting these publishers and their distributors to the pain of vindicating challenged materials is not to place them under unusual hardship, for as this Court has said in another context, 'Bearing the discomfiture and cost' even of 'a prosecution for crime (though) by an innocent person is one of the painful obligations of citizenship.' Cobbledick v. United States, 309 U.S. 323, 325, 60 S.Ct. 540, 541, 84 L.Ed. 783.

The Court's final point-that the Commission's activities may result in keeping from the adult public protected material, even though suppressible so far as youth is concerned-requires little additional comment. It is enough to say that such a determination should not be made at large, as has been done here. It should await a case when circumspect judgment can be brought to bear upon particular judicially suppressed publications.

Believing that the Commission, once advised of the permissible constitutional scope of its activities, can be counted on to conduct itself accordingly, I would affirm the judgment of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Cf. United States v. Haley, 371 U.S. 18, 83 S.Ct. 11, 9 L.Ed.2d 1.


^1  The appellees were enjoined 'from directly or indirectly notifying book and magazine wholesale distributors and retailers that the Commission has found objectionable any specific book or magazine for sale, distribution or display; said injunction * * * (to) apply whether such notification is given directly to said book and magazine wholesale distributors and retailers, or any of them, either orally or in writing, or through the publication of lists or bulletins, and irrespective of the manner of dissemination of such lists or bulletins.'

^2  Rhode Island Gen.Laws (Supp.1961), Tit. 9, c. 30 (Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act.).

^3  The publishers and distributors involved in this case are all, so far as this record shows, substantial business concerns, presumably represented by competent counsel, as were the appellants here.

^4  It seems obvious that in a nonlicensing context the force of Times Film is not lessened by the circumstance that in this case books rather than motion pictures are involved.

^5  In their Reply Brief (p. 4) appellants acknowledge: 'We have never attempted to deal with the question of obscenity or nonobscenity of Appellants' books.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).