Jacobs v. New York, 388 U.S. 431 (1967)

Author: Justice Douglas

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Jacobs v. New York, 388 U.S. 431 (1967)


We have here two cases in which appellants have been convicted under a State’s obscenity statutes. In No. 660, appellants were convicted of showing an allegedly obscene motion picture. They were given suspended sentences and the time during which the suspended sentences could have been revoked and prison sentences imposed has now passed. In No. 993, post, p. 439, appellant was convicted of selling an allegedly obscene magazine to a person under 18. He was sentenced to 30 days and fined $100. The fine has been paid, and the sentence was suspended. The First Amendment issues in these cases are substantial. Nonetheless, they are dismissed as moot because the appellants are no longer subject to the custody of the State, and, in No. 993, the fine has been paid. The Court apparently believes this result to be commanded by our prior cases. I disagree.

The mootness doctrine is expressive of the need for antagonistic parties whose vigorous argument will sharpen the issues. It is part of the "case or controversy" requirement of Article III. St. Pierre v. United States, 319 U.S. 41, 42. But it is not so rigid as to defeat substantial rights, nor so inflexible as to prevent this Court from facing serious constitutional questions. Thus, we have held that service of a sentence does not render a case moot where the conviction, if allowed to stand, will result in collateral disabilities such as a loss of civil rights. Fiswick v. United States, 329 U.S. 211; United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502.

In the present cases, we are in the area of the First Amendment. Over and over again we have stressed that First Amendment rights need "breathing space to survive" (NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 433), and we have been watchful lest coercive measures exercise an in terrorem effect which intimidates people from exercising their First Amendment rights. See, e.g., Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513; NAACP v. Button, supra; Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589. We have been mindful that "[t]he threat of sanctions may deter . . . almost as potently as the actual application of sanctions." NAACP v. Button, supra, at 433. Accordingly, we have modified traditional rules of standing and prematurity to fit the peculiarities necessary to ensure adequate protection of First Amendment rights. See Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479.

The in terrorem effect of denying review to cases such as these because sentences have been suspended or short sentences served is obvious. Sentences for violations of obscenity statutes are often suspended and generally short. If those convicted cannot obtain ultimate review of such convictions, merely because of the shortness of the sentences and the slowness of the judicial process, many will choose to comply with what may be an invalid statute. Many may steer wide and refrain from showing or selling protected material. First Amendment rights are thus stifled. If a practice such as this were shown to exist, its in terrorem effect on all publishers would certainly be sufficiently clear as to give any of them standing to bring an action for declaratory relief. Its in terrorem effect on a publisher who has actually felt the harsh impact of the law is so obvious that its continuing deterrent effect upon him should keep his case from becoming moot.

In No. 660, appellants’ film and motion picture equipment were seized at the time of their arrests. They argue that, at the conclusion of this proceeding, they can bring an action to recover possession of the film and equipment. If their convictions are allowed to stand, along with the holding that the film is obscene, the film and equipment will be subject to forfeiture. They also argue that the department of licenses may suspend their motion picture theater license on the ground that they have shown obscene pictures. Perhaps they could relitigate the question of the film’s obscenity in such proceedings. That is, of course, a matter of state law. But if appellants are correct, the convictions may entail sufficient collateral consequences that distinguish them from St. Pierre v. United States, supra, and bring them within the Fiswick and Morgan cases.

The questions of mootness loom so large in the setting of the First Amendment that they should at least be briefed and argued.


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Chicago: Douglas, "Douglas, J., Dissenting," Jacobs v. New York, 388 U.S. 431 (1967) in 388 U.S. 431 388 U.S. 437–388 U.S. 438. Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PW8WC4VNFKRYGRW.

MLA: Douglas. "Douglas, J., Dissenting." Jacobs v. New York, 388 U.S. 431 (1967), in 388 U.S. 431, pp. 388 U.S. 437–388 U.S. 438. Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PW8WC4VNFKRYGRW.

Harvard: Douglas, 'Douglas, J., Dissenting' in Jacobs v. New York, 388 U.S. 431 (1967). cited in 1967, 388 U.S. 431, pp.388 U.S. 437–388 U.S. 438. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PW8WC4VNFKRYGRW.