A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Attorney General of Massachusetts


No. 368 Argued: December 7-8, 1965 --- Decided: March 21, 1966
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE FORTAS join. [p415]

This is an obscenity case in which Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (commonly known as Fanny Hill), written by John Cleland in about 1750, was adjudged obscene in a proceeding that put on trial the book itself, and not its publisher or distributor. The proceeding was a civil equity suit brought by the Attorney General of Massachusetts, pursuant to General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 272, §§ 28C-28H, to have the book declared obscene. [n1] Section 28C requires that the petition commencing the suit be "directed against [the] book by name" and that an order to show cause "why said book should not be judicially determined to be obscene" be published in a daily newspaper and sent by registered mail "to all persons interested ill the publication." Publication of the order in this case occurred in a Boston daily newspaper, and a copy of the order was sent by registered mail to G. P. Putnam's Sons, alleged to be the publisher and copyright holder of the book.

As authorized by § 28D, G. P. Putnam's Sons intervened in the proceedings in behalf of the book, but it did not claim the right provided by that section to have the issue of obscenity tried by a jury. At the hearing before a justice of the Superior Court, which was conducted, under § 28F, "in accordance with the usual course of proceedings in equity," the court received the book in evidence and also, as allowed by the section, heard the testimony of experts [n2] and accepted other evidence, such [p416] as book reviews, in order to assess the literary, cultural, or educational character of the book. This constituted the entire evidence, as neither side availed itself of the [p417] opportunity provided by the section to introduce evidence "as to the manner and form of its publication, advertisement, and distribution." [n3] The trial justice entered a final decree, which adjudged Memoirs obscene and declared that the book

is not entitled to the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States against action by the Attorney General or other law enforcement officer pursuant to the provisions of . . . 28B, or otherwise. [n4]

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the decree. 349 Mass. 69, 206 N.E.2d 403 (1965). We noted probable jurisdiction. 382 U.S. 900. We reverse. [n5] [p418]


The term "obscene" appearing in the Massachusetts statute has been interpreted by the Supreme Judicial Court to be as expansive as the Constitution permits: the "statute covers all material that is obscene in the constitutional sense." Attorney General v. The Book Named "Tropic of Cancer," 345 Mass. 11, 13, 184 N.E.2d 328, 330 (1962). Indeed, the final decree before us equates the finding that Memoirs is obscene within the meaning of the statute with the declaration that the book is not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. [n6] Thus, the sole question before the state courts was whether Memoirs satisfies the test of obscenity established in Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476.

We defined obscenity in Roth in the following terms:

[W]hether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.

354 U.S. at 489. Under this definition, as elaborated in subsequent cases, three elements must coalesce: it must be established that (a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters, and (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value.

The Supreme Judicial Court purported to apply the Roth definition of obscenity and held all three criteria satisfied. We need not consider the claim that the court erred in concluding that Memoirs satisfied the prurient [p419] appeal and patent offensiveness criteria; for reversal is required because the court misinterpreted the social value criterion. The court applied the criterion in this passage:

It remains to consider whether the book can be said to be "utterly without social importance." We are mindful that there was expert testimony, much of which was strained, to the effect that Memoirs is a structural novel with literary merit; that the book displays a skill in characterization and a gift for comedy; that it plays a part in the history of the development of the English novel, and that it contains a moral, namely, that sex with love is superior to sex in a brothel. But the fact that the testimony may indicate this book has some minimal literary value does not mean it is of any social importance. We do not interpret the "social importance" test as requiring that a book which appeals to prurient interest and is patently offensive must be unqualifiedly worthless before it can be deemed obscene.

349 Mass. at 73, 206 N.E.2d at 406. The Supreme Judicial Court erred in holding that a book need not be "unqualifiedly worthless before it can be deemed obscene. " A book cannot be proscribed unless it is found to be utterly without redeeming social value. This is so even though the book is found to possess the requisite prurient appeal and to be patently offensive. Each of the three federal constitutional criteria is to be applied independently; the social value of the book can neither be weighed against nor canceled by its prurient appeal or patent offensiveness. [n7] Hence, [p420] even on the view of the court below that Memoirs possessed only a modicum of social value, its judgment must be reversed as being founded on an erroneous interpretation of a federal constitutional standard.


It does not necessarily follow from this reversal that a determination that Memoirs is obscene in the constitutional sense would be improper under all circumstances. On the premise, which we have no occasion to assess, that Memoirs has the requisite prurient appeal and is patently offensive, but has only a minimum of social value, the circumstances of production, sale, and publicity are relevant in determining whether or not the publication or distribution of the book is constitutionally protected. Evidence that the book was commercially exploited for the sake of prurient appeal, to the exclusion of all other values, might justify the conclusion that the book was utterly without redeeming social importance. It is not that, in such a setting the social value test is relaxed so as to dispense with the requirement that a book be utterly devoid of social value, but rather that, as we elaborate in Ginzburg v. United States, post, pp. 470-473, where the purveyor's sole emphasis is on the sexually provocative aspects of his publications, a court could accept his evaluation at its face value. In this proceeding, however, the courts were asked to judge the obscenity of Memoirs in the abstract, and the declaration of obscenity was neither aided nor limited by a specific set of circumstances of production, sale, and publicity. [n8] [p421] All possible uses of the book must therefore be considered, and the mere risk that the book might be exploited by panderers because it so pervasively treats sexual matters cannot alter the fact -- given the view of the Massachusetts court attributing to Memoirs a modicum of literary and historical value -- that the book will have redeeming social importance in the hands of those who publish or distribute it on the basis of that value.


MR. JUSTICE BLACK and MR. JUSTICE STEWART concur in the reversal for the reasons stated in their respective dissenting opinions in Ginzburg v. United States, post, p. 476 and p. 497 and Mishkin v. New York, post, p. 515 and p. 518.


SECTION 28B. Whoever imports, prints, publishes, sells, loans or distributes, or buys, procures, receives, or [p422] has in his possession for the purpose of sale, loan or distribution, a book, knowing it to be obscene, indecent or impure, or whoever, being a wholesale distributor, a jobber, or publisher sends or delivers to a retail storekeeper a book, pamphlet, magazine or other form of printed or written material, knowing it to be obscene, indecent or impure, which said storekeeper had not previously ordered in writing, specifying the title and quantity of such publication he desired, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one half years, or by a fine of not less than one hundred dollars nor more than five thousand dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment in jail or the house of correction.

SECTION 28C. Whenever there is reasonable cause to believe that a book which is being imported, sold, loaned or distributed, or is in the possession of any person who intends to import sell, loan or distribute the same, is obscene, indecent or impure, the attorney general, or any district attorney within his district, shall bring an information or petition in equity in the superior court directed against said book by name. Upon the filing of such information or petition in equity, a justice of the superior court shall, if, upon a summary examination of the book, he is of opinion that there is reasonable cause to believe that such book is obscene, indecent or impure, issue an order of notice, returnable in or within thirty days, directed against such book by name and addressed to all persons interested in the publication, sale, loan or distribution thereof, to show cause why said book should not be judicially determined to be obscene, indecent or impure. Notice of such order shall be given by publication once each week for two successive weeks in a daily newspaper published in the city of Boston and, if such information or petition be filed in any county other than [p423] Suffolk county, then by publication also in a daily newspaper published in such other county. A copy of such order of notice shall be sent by registered mail to the publisher of said book, to the person holding the copyrights, and to the author, in case the names of any such persons appear upon said book, fourteen days at least before the return day of such order of notice. After the issuance of an order of notice under the provisions of this section, the court shall, on motion of the attorney general or district attorney, make an interlocutory finding and adjudication that said book is obscene, indecent or impure, which finding and adjudication shall be of the same force and effect as the final finding and adjudication provided in section twenty-eight E or section twenty-eight F, but only until such final finding and adjudication is made or until further order of the court.

SECTION 28D. Any person interested in the sale, loan or distribution of said book may appear and file an answer on or before the return day named in said notice or within such further time as the court may allow, and may claim a right to trial by jury on the issue whether said book is obscene, indecent or impure.

SECTION 28E. If no person appears and answers within the time allowed, the court may at once upon motion of the petitioner, or of its own motion, no reason to the contrary appearing, order a general default and if the court finds that the book is obscene, indecent or impure, may make an adjudication against the book that the same is obscene, indecent and impure.

SECTION 28F. If an appearance is entered and answer filed, the case shall be set down for speedy hearing, but a default and order shall first be entered against all persons who have not appeared and answered, in the manner provided in section twenty-eight E. Such hearing shall be conducted in accordance with the usual course of proceedings in equity including all rights of exception and [p424] appeal. At such hearing the court may receive the testimony of experts and may receive evidence as to the literary, cultural or educational character of said book and as to the manner and form of its publication, advertisement, and distribution. Upon such hearing, the court may make an adjudication in the manner provided in said section twenty-eight E.

SECTION 28G. An information or petition in equity under the provisions of section twenty-eight C shall not be open to objection on the ground that a mere judgment, order or decree is sought thereby and that no relief is or could be claimed thereunder on the issue of the defendant's knowledge as to the obscenity, indecency or impurity of the book.

SECTION 28H. In any trial under section twenty-eight B on an indictment found or a complaint made for any offence committed after the filing of a proceeding under section twenty-eight C, the fact of such filing and the action of the court or jury thereon, if any, shall be admissible in evidence. If prior to the said offence a final decree had been entered against the book, the defendant, if the book be obscene, indecent or impure, shall be conclusively presumed to have known said book to be obscene, indecent or impure, or if said decree had been in favor of the book he shall be conclusively presumed not to have known said book to be obscene, indecent or impure, or if no final decree had been entered but a proceeding had been filed prior to said offence, the defendant shall be conclusively presumed to have had knowledge of the contents of said book.

1. The text of the statute appears in the Appendix.

2. In dissenting from the Supreme Judicial Court's disposition in this case, 349 Mass. 69, 775, 206 N.E.2d 403, 406-407 (1965), Justice Whittemore summarized this testimony:

In the view of one or another or all of the following viz., the chairman of the English department at Williams College, a professor of English at Harvard College, an associate professor of English literature at Boston University, an associate professor of English at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an assistant professor of English and American literature at Brandeis University, the book is a minor "work of art" having "literary merit" and "historical value" and containing a good deal of "deliberate, calculated comedy." It is a piece of "social history of interest to anyone who is interested in fiction as a way of understanding society in the past."[1] A saving grace is that, although many scenes, if translated

1. One of the witnesses testified in part as follows: "Cleland is part of what I should call this cultural battle that is going on in the 18th century, a battle between a restricted Puritan, moralistic ethic that attempts to suppress freedom of the spirit, freedom of the flesh, and this element is competing with a freer attitude towards life, a more generous attitude towards life, a more wholesome attitude towards life, and this very attitude that is manifested in Fielding's great novel ‘Tom Jones' is also evident in Cleland's novel. . . . [Richardson's] ‘Pamela' is the story of a young country girl; [his] ‘Clarissa' is the story of a woman trapped in a house of prostitution. Obviously, then Cleland takes both these themes, the country girl, her initiation into life and into experience, and the story of a woman in a house of prostitution, and what he simply does is to take the situation and reverse the moral standards. Richardson believed that chastity was the most important thing in the world; Cleland and Fielding obviously did not, and thought there were more important significant moral values."

into the present day language of "the realistic, naturalistic novel, could be quite offensive" these scenes are not described in such language. The book contains no dirty words and its language "functions . . . to create a distance, even when the sexual experiences are portrayed." The response, therefore, is a literary response. The descriptions of depravity are not obscene because "they are subordinate to an interest which is primarily literary;" Fanny's reaction to the scenes of depravity was "anger," "disgust, horror, [and] indignation." The book "belongs to the history of English literature, rather than the history of smut."

2. In the opinion of the other academic witness, the headmaster of a private school, whose field is English literature, the book is without literary merit and is obscene, impure, hard core pornography, and is patently offensive.

3. The record in this case is thus significantly different from the records in Ginzburg v. United States, post, p. 463, and Mishkin v. New York, post, p. 502. See pp 420-421, infra.

4. Section 28B makes it a criminal offense, inter alia, to import, print, publish, sell, loan, distribute, buy, procure, receive, or possess for the purpose of sale, loan, or distribution, "a book, knowing it to be obscene." Section 28H provides that, in any prosecution under § 2813, the decree obtained in a proceeding against the book "shall be admissible in evidence," and further that,

[i]f prior to the said offence a final decree had been entered against the book, the defendant, if the book be obscene . . . shall be conclusively presumed to have known said book to he obscene. . . .

Thus a declaration of obscenity such as that obtained in this proceeding is likely to result in the total suppression of the book in the Commonwealth.

The constitutionality of § 28H has not been challenged in this appeal.

5. Although the final decree provides no coercive relief, but only a declaration of the hook's obscenity, our adjudication of the merits of the issue tendered, viz., whether the state courts erred in declaring the book obscene, is not premature. There is no uncertainty as to the content of the material challenged, and the Attorney General's petition commencing this suit states that the book "is being imported, sold, loaned, or distributed in the Commonwealth." The declaration of obscenity is likely to have a serious inhibitory effect on the distribution of the book, and this probable impact is to no small measure derived from possible collateral uses of the declaration in subsequent prosecutions under the Massachusetts criminal obscenity statute. See n. 4, supra.

6. We infer from the opinions below that the other adjectives describing the proscribed books in §§ 28C-28H, "indecent" and "impure," have either been read out of the statute or deemed synonymous with "obscene."


[M]aterial dealing with sex in a manner that advocates ideas, . . . or that has literary or scientific or artistic value or any other form of social importance, may not be branded as obscenity and denied the constitutional protection. Nor may the constitutional status of the material be made to turn on a "weighing" of its social importance against its prurient appeal, for a work cannot be proscribed unless it is "utterly" without social importance. See Zeitlin v. Arnebergh, 59 Cal.2d 901, 920, 383 P.2d 152, 165, 31 Cal.Rptr. 800, 813 (1963).

Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 191 (opinion of BRENNAN, J.). Followed in, e.g., People v. Bruce, 31 Ill.2d 459, 461, 202 N.E.2d 497, 498 (1964); Trans-Lux Distributing Corp. v. Maryland Bd. of Censors, 240 Md. 98, 104-105, 213 A.2d 235, 238-239 (1965).

8. In his dissenting opinion, 349 Mass. at 76-78, 206 N.E.2d at 408-409, Justice Cutter stated that, although in his view the book was not "obscene" within the meaning of Roth, "it could reasonably be found that distribution of the book to persons under the age of eighteen would be a violation of G. L. c. 272, § 28, as tending to corrupt the morals of youth." (Section 28 makes it a crime to sell to "a person under the age of eighteen years a book . . . which is obscene . . . or manifestly tends to corrupt the morals of youth.") He concluded that the court should

limit the relief granted to a declaration that distribution of this book to persons under the age of eighteen may be found to constitute a violation of [G. L.] c. 272, § 28, if that section is reasonably applied. . . .

However, the decree was not so limited and we intimate no view concerning the constitutionality of such a limited declaration regarding Memoirs. Cf. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. at 195.