Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200 (1971)

Author: Justice Douglas

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Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200 (1971)

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting.


The two raids in this case were search-and-destroy missions in the Vietnamese sense of the phrase. In each case, the police came at night. The first search warrant authorized a search and seizure of "obscene articles and materials, to-wit: pictures, photographs, drawings and obscene literature" concealed at a given address. The seizures included: two tons of a newspaper (Dallas Notes), one photograph enlarger, two portable typewriters, two electric typewriters, one camera, "numerous obscene photographs," and $5.43 in money.{1} The second warrant was issued 16 days later, in response to a claim that marihuana was concealed on the premises. It authorized the officers "to search for and seize the said narcotic drug and dangerous drug in accordance with the law in such cases provided." Not finding any marihuana on the premises; the sergeant asked instructions from his lieutenant. He was told to seize pornographic literature and any equipment used to make it. He "didn’t know what to seize and what not to seize so [he] just took everything." "Everything" included a Polaroid camera, a Kodak Brownie, a Flocon camera, a Kodak lamp, a floating fixture lamp, a three-drawer desk containing printers’ supplies, a drafting square, a drafting table, two drawing boards, a mailing tube, two telephones, a stapler, five cardboard boxes containing documents, one electric typewriter, and one typewriter desk. A poster of Mao Tse-tung, credit cards, costume jewelry, cans of spices, a brown sweater, and a statue of a man and woman in an embrace were also seized. Thus, the newspaper Dallas Notes, a bi-monthly, was effectively put out of business.{2}

It would be difficult to find in our books a more lawless search-and-destroy raid, unless it be the one in Kremen v. United States, 353 U.S. 346. If this search-and-destroy technique can be employed against this Dallas newspaper, then it can be done to the New York Times, the Washington Post the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Sacramento Bee, and all the rest of our newspapers. For, as I shall point out, the Texas statute governing "obscenity"{3} is plainly unconstitutional.

Government certainly has no power to close down newspapers. Even censorship -- whether for obscenity, for irresponsible reporting or editorials, or otherwise -- is taboo. As Chief Justice Hughes said in Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, decided in 1931:

[T]he administration of government has become more complex, the opportunities for malfeasance and corruption have multiplied, crime has grown to most serious proportions, and the danger of its protection by unfaithful officials and of the impairment of the fundamental security of life and property by criminal alliances and official neglect, emphasizes the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press, especially in great cities. The fact that the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any the less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct. Subsequent punishment for such abuses as may exist is the appropriate remedy, consistent with constitutional privilege.

Id. at 719-720.

I agree with that view.

It is said, however, that these issues are not before us, as the case has been remanded to a single judge to pass on them. But we deal with plain error, as the state statute is unconstitutional on its face and we should put an end to lawless raids under it.{4}


The constitutional mandate that government{5} "shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" precludes, in my view, any form of censorship. Vicious, irresponsible, and depraved as the press often is, the constitutional remedy is not censorship.{6} The antidote is education, pinning our faith to the Jeffersonian creed that, by education, we may, in time, become a mature people.{7}

I have set forth my views over and over again as to why the First Amendment should be strictly construed, and they need not be repeated here. It is difficult -- indeed, impossible -- to read the constitutional mandate that government "shall make no law" abridging freedom of the press to mean that government "may make some laws" abridging that freedom. Certainly a strict constructionist cannot so read it.

The Court says it has been trying to balance the interests of society in protecting itself from the supposed evils of obscene material with the real interest in freedom of expression. There is ample evidence that the clear and definite language of the first amendment was intended to preclude the very problem of balancing assumed by the Court. The first amendment holds that the interest of society in freedom of expression{8} is more important than the harm that might flow from obscene material. The very interest in protection from injury from obscene material would be better served by allowing each individual to make a free appraisal of pornographic material. A hallmark of an immature and insecure society is the censorship of ideas. Censorship, which insulates all from what some suppose to be evil, merely magnifies that insecurity. If society does such a poor job of educating itself so that four letter words and explicit pictures are dangerous, the remedy is to improve the educational process, not to outlaw certain publications. While the first amendment does not mandate better education, it does prohibit the censorship of ideas. This use of a balancing test evidences a misconception of the constitutional nature of society. There is nothing to balance. Society’s security flows directly and solely from the freedom and security of each individual.

31 Albany L.Rev. 143, 151 (1967).

If I am correct in concluding that a State can make "no law" censoring the press because of obscenity, then a publisher threatened by such a law can go into a federal court to enjoin state officials from enforcing the law, as I made clear in my dissent in Younger v. Harris, ante at 59. The special circumstances where such federal intervention is permissible are not restricted to bad faith on the part of state officials or the threat of multiple prosecutions. As Mr. Justice Butler, writing for the Court, said in Terrace v. Thompson, 263 U.S. 197, 214:

Equity jurisdiction will be exercised to enjoin the threatened enforcement of a state law which contravenes the Federal Constitution wherever it is essential in order effectually to protect property rights and the rights of persons against injuries otherwise irremediable; and, in such a case, a person who, as an officer of the State, is clothed with the duty of enforcing its laws, and who threatens and is about to commence proceedings, either civil or criminal, to enforce such a law against parties affected, may be enjoined from such action by a federal court of equity.

And see Watson v. Buck, 313 U.S. 387, 402.

No possible construction of this state law can save it. This is not a situation where mere overbreadth of a state statute may have chilling or crippling effects on First Amendment rights. This is a case where Texas has entered a field which the Constitution bars all the States and the Federal Government from entering.

The Texas obscenity statute, as I view it, meets precisely the hypothetical statute we discussed in Watson v. Buck, 313 U.S. 387, 402:

It is, of course, conceivable that a statute might be flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence and paragraph, and in whatever manner and against whomever an effort might be made to apply it.

No clearer case justifying federal intervention to prevent a state criminal trial can be imagined.

No pending prosecutions are sought to be enjoined, only future ones.{9} Such an injunction is not impermissible under 28 U.S.C. § 2283. See Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 484 n. 2, and my dissent in Younger v. Harris, ante at 65. Appellee also asked for declaratory relief. If Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, means anything, it means that such relief can also be granted.


If a publication deemed "obscene" is not under the umbrella of the First Amendment, then I do not see how it enjoys many constitutional safeguards. That which is out from under the First Amendment would normally be subject to the police power of the States. Yet the Constitution contains no standards or suggestions of standards respecting the vast array of subjects that various vocal groups would like to have suppressed -- obscenity, sacrilege, un-Americanism, anti-clerical ideas, atheistic or anti-ecclesiastical ideas, Communism, racism, and so on. Under the Constitution as written, there are no standards of "good" or "bad" for the press. Since there is no constitutional definition of obscenity, the definition must be largely, if not exclusively, for legislative determination. Absent a controlling constitutional standard, I would think that a legislature could treat literature as it treats sewage effluent or infectious disease. That is not a happy prospect, for some would put even the Song of Solomon under the ban. It is, I fear, where we end once we lose our First Amendment moorings. Administrative censorship, however, is one thing. Criminal punishment is quite another. Publishing "obscene" literature cannot, as I view it, be made a crime under our constitutional standards.

Whatever "obscenity" is, it is immeasurable as a crime and delineable only as a sin. As a sin, it is present only in the minds of some, and not in the minds of others. It is entirely too subjective for legal sanction. There are as many different definitions of obscenity as there are men, and they are as unique to the individual as are his dreams.

Note, The Substantive Law of Obscenity: An Adventure in Quicksand, 13 N.Y.L.F. 81, 131 (1967). What appeals to "prurient interests" describes sin to some, but not to others, and seems to me to be far too vague to pass muster as a criminal, as distinguished from an administrative, statute.{10}

I see no help on the vagueness problem even if the test "utterly without redeeming social importance" were added to the criminal standard, as it was in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 191.{11} That is a measurement which again is wholly subjective. It cannot be related to anything but the judge’s or jurors’ sophistication or stage of cultural development. Nor do I think the problem is helped by introducing the concept of "contemporary community standards," whether that refers to the public at large or a local county or town standard. Id. at 193.

The two tests -- this Court’s and that of Texas -- seem to me to be substantially identical. I do not see how either can be held to be constitutional. The standard of guilt is wholly subjective. The jurors can convict or acquit according to their own personal tastes, their cultural standard, their literacy, and their tolerance for opposed ideas. And the same would be true of judges. It means that a book that is hailed as wholesome in one county may be the cause of punishment in another county of the same State.

The evidence in obscenity prosecutions is usually expert testimony. Analysts, English literature scholars, and others often have helpful and informed views, one way or the other. It seems impossible, if we continue to sanction the use of these vague standards in criminal prosecutions, that verdicts will be rendered which are based on the record, and not on the emotional factors reflecting the prejudices of the judge or jurors.

Uncertainty, rather than certainty, is the standard. The book, play, poem, or movie is approved or condemned on the basis of the personal beliefs of the judge or jurors, not on the ban of a statute containing clear and objective standards.

The concept of "utterly without redeeming social importance" will divide even the experts. It is risky and perilous business to send men to prison on such provocative issues, which confuse people and create irreconcilable differences even among the judges who sentence them or approve their convictions.

In these criminal cases dealing with obscenity, we leave people confused and in the dark as to whether they are or are not criminals. Criminal laws must give fair warning, and a person receives no real warning when he crosses the line between the lawful and the unlawful, under the Texas statute{12} or under the standard approved by the Court.

Where constitutional rights may be infringed, Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, should be our guide. There, an "obscene" magazine was defined to include those which "massed" stories of bloodshed and lust to incite crimes. Id. at 513. We held that standard to be too vague to satisfy constitutional standards.{13}

The standards of certainty in statutes punishing for offenses is higher than in those depending primarily upon civil sanction for enforcement. The crime "must be defined with appropriate definiteness." . . . There must be ascertainable standards of guilt. Men of common intelligence cannot be required to guess at the meaning of the enactment. The vagueness may be from uncertainty in regard to persons within the scope of the act, . . . or in regard to the applicable tests to ascertain guilt.

Id. at 515-516. And see Wright v. Georgia, 373 U.S. 284, 292; Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147, 151; United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612; Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250, 264; Williams v. United States, 341 U.S. 97; Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296.

My view, however, is that any regime of censorship over literature, whether expressed in a criminal statute{14} or an administrative{15} procedure, is unconstitutional by reason of the command of the First Amendment.


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Chicago: Douglas, "Douglas, J., Dissenting," Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200 (1971) in 401 U.S. 200 401 U.S. 205–401 U.S. 215. Original Sources, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4MB1G63FHIYCCSW.

MLA: Douglas. "Douglas, J., Dissenting." Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200 (1971), in 401 U.S. 200, pp. 401 U.S. 205–401 U.S. 215. Original Sources. 26 Feb. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4MB1G63FHIYCCSW.

Harvard: Douglas, 'Douglas, J., Dissenting' in Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200 (1971). cited in 1971, 401 U.S. 200, pp.401 U.S. 205–401 U.S. 215. Original Sources, retrieved 26 February 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4MB1G63FHIYCCSW.