Obscenity laws are meant to regulate and censor “obscene” speech and material. But as U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan once noted in expressing the immense challenge of defining obscenity in a way that is not ambiguous or subjective, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
A free and democratic society should guarantee every individual the right to decide what art or entertainment they read, watch, or listen to. That also means that every individual has the right to decide what not to read or watch: to turn off the TV, leave a website, or decline to visit a particular art exhibit.
In the landmark 1997 Supreme Court ruling in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, all nine justices of the court struck down provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) aimed at protecting minors by criminalizing so-called “indecency” on the Internet. This decision, hailed as the “Magna Carta of the Internet age,” ensured that online speech would enjoy the broad protection afforded to books and magazines rather than the more limited protection afforded to broadcast television and radio.
The ACLU continues to be a guardian of First Amendment rights through advocacy campaigns, litigation, and lobbying.