obscenity | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Obscenity in criminal law pertains to any material or conduct that is considered offensive, indecent, or immoral, often in a sexual context, and is regulated by the law.

Understanding Obscenity

In the world of criminal justice, the term obscenity is often thrown around. But what does it mean? Obscenity involves things that are considered indecent or offensive. This could be anything from a piece of art, a book, a movie, or even a person’s actions. Most often, obscenity refers to things with sexual content. For instance, certain kinds of explicit adult content might be considered obscene.

Obscenity Laws

Lawmakers, over the years, have passed laws to regulate obscene materials. In many places, selling, distributing, or creating obscene materials is against the law. However, defining what is obscene can be tricky. After all, what one person considers offensive, another might view as art or free expression.

In the United States, the standard for obscenity comes from a Supreme Court case called Miller v. California. This case established the “Miller test,” which asks three questions:

  1. Would the average person, applying contemporary community standards, find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest?
  2. Does the work depict or describe, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law?
  3. Does the work, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then the material is considered obscene.

Why Regulate Obscenity?

Obscenity laws aim to protect society’s moral standards. Lawmakers argue that certain content can harm individuals or degrade societal norms. Above all, they strive to balance freedom of speech and expression with the need to uphold public decency and prevent harm.

Controversies Around Obscenity

Determining what is obscene is not easy. Standards can change over time and vary from place to place. What was considered obscene 50 years ago might be viewed differently today. Similarly, what one community finds obscene, another might not.

Also, many people believe that obscenity laws infringe on freedom of speech. They argue that individuals should be free to create, view, or distribute whatever content they want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.


In conclusion, obscenity in criminal law involves regulating offensive or indecent materials or conduct, often with sexual content. While intended to protect societal norms, defining obscenity can be controversial and varies based on community standards and time period. Despite the challenges, the criminal justice system continues to grapple with these issues, striving to strike a balance between freedom of expression and upholding public decency.

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Last Modified: 07/01/2023


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