Smith v. California
361 U.S. 147 (1959)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147 (1959)

Smith v. California

No. 9

Argued October 20, 1959

Decided December 14, 1959

361 U.S. 147

Syllabus

Appellant, proprietor of a bookstore, was convicted of violating a city ordinance which was construed by the state courts as making him absolutely liable criminally for the mere possession in his store of a book later judicially determined to be obscene -- even if he had no knowledge as to the contents of the book. Held: As thus construed and applied, the ordinance violates the freedom of the press which is safeguarded by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by state action. Pp. 361 U. S. 148-155.

(a) The free publication and dissemination of books obviously are within the constitutionally protected freedom of the press, and a retail bookseller plays a most significant role in the distribution of books. P. 361 U. S. 150.

(b) Legal devices and doctrines, in most applications consistent with the Constitution, may not be constitutionally capable of application where such application would have the effect of inhibiting freedom of expression by making persons reluctant to exercise it. Pp. 361 U. S. 150-152.

(c) Obscene expression is not constitutionally protected; but this ordinance imposes an unconstitutional limitation on the public's access to constitutionally protected matter. For, if the bookseller be criminally liable without knowledge of the contents, he will tend to restrict the books he sells to those he has inspected, and thus a restriction will be imposed by the States upon the distribution of constitutionally protected, as well as obscene, books. Pp. 361 U. S. 152-154.

(d) The existence of the State's power to prevent the distribution of obscene matter does not mean that there can be no constitutional barrier to any form of practical exercise of that power. Hence, that there may be more difficultly in enforcing a regulation against the distribution of obscene literature if booksellers may not be held to an absolute criminal liability does not require a different result here. Pp. 361 U. S. 154-155.

161 Cal. App. 2d Supp. 860, 327 P. 2d 636, reversed.

Page 361 U. S. 148

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