Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291 (1977)

Author: U.S. Supreme Court

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Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291 (1977)

Smith v. United States

No. 75-1439

Argued December 8, 1976
Decided May 23, 1977
431 U.S. 291



Petitioner, who had been indicted in the Southern District of Iowa for mailing obscene materials in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1461, unavailingly sought to propound questions to the jury panel on voir dire relating to the panel members’ knowledge of the contemporary community standards in that District with regard to the depiction of sex and nudity. The case proceeded to trial and at the close of the Government’s case and later, petitioner unsuccessfully moved for a directed verdict of acquittal on the grounds, inter alia, that the Iowa obscenity statute in effect at the time of petitioner’s conduct, which proscribed only the dissemination of obscene materials to minors, set forth the applicable community standard, and that the prosecution had not proved that the materials at issue had offended that standard. Petitioner was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding (1) that petitioner’s proposed community standards questions were impermissible, since they concerned the ultimate question of guilt or innocence, rather than juror qualifications, and (2) that the issue of offense to contemporary community standards was a federal question, and was not to be determined on the basis of the state obscenity law.


1. State law cannot define the contemporary community standards for appeal to the prurient interest and patent offensiveness that under Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, are applied in determining whether or not material is obscene, and the Iowa obscenity statute is therefore not conclusive as to those standards. In federal prosecutions, such as this for violation of § 1461, those issues are fact questions for the jury, to be judged in light of its understanding of contemporary community standards. Pp. 299-308.

(a) Though state legislatures are not completely foreclosed from setting substantive limitations for obscenity cases, they cannot declare what community standards shall be, any more than they could undertake to define "reasonableness." Cf. Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 104-105. Pp. 301-303.

(b) The community standards aspects of § 1461 implicate federal, not state, law. It is not material that the mailings here were solely intrastate, since § 1461 was enacted under Congress’ constitutional postal power, not the commerce power. Pp. 303-305.

(c) Obscenity convictions remain reviewable on various grounds. Pp. 305-306.

(d) This Court’s holding that the Iowa statute (which was properly admitted into evidence) is not conclusive on the issue of contemporary community standards does not nullify state law, but a State’s right not to regulate in the obscenity field cannot correlatively compel the Federal Government to allow the mails to be used to send obscene materials into that State. Pp. 306-307.

2. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to ask the questions tendered by petitioner for voir dire about the jurors’ understanding of community standards, which were no more appropriate than a request for a description of the meaning of "reasonableness" would have been. P. 308.

3. Section 1461 is not unconstitutionally vague as applied here, since the type of conduct covered by the statute can be ascertained with sufficient ease to avoid due process pitfalls. Cf. Hamling v. United States, supra. pp. 30309.


BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 309. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEWART and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 310. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 311.


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Chicago: U.S. Supreme Court, "Syllabus," Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291 (1977) in 431 U.S. 291 431 U.S. 292. Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019,

MLA: U.S. Supreme Court. "Syllabus." Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291 (1977), in 431 U.S. 291, page 431 U.S. 292. Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: U.S. Supreme Court, 'Syllabus' in Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291 (1977). cited in 1977, 431 U.S. 291, pp.431 U.S. 292. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from