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In United States v. Twelve 200-Ft Reels of Film, 413 U.S. 123 (1973), the Supreme Court upheld a federal statute adopted under the authority of the commerce clause — 19 U.S.C. § 1305(a) — banning the importation of obscene materials, even for personal use, finding such action was not protected by the First Amendment.

Man bringing in pornographic material from Mexico argued First Amendment protection

The individual involved in the dispute, Paladini, was stopped by customs officials at the Los Angeles Airport while in possession of pornographic materials that he was bringing into the United States from Mexico purely for private use. The customs officials confiscated these materials, and the government invoked its authority to seize the material permanently.

Paladini argued that because these materials were for his personal use, his actions were protected by his First Amendment right to free expression and the Court’s decision in Stanley v. Georgia (1969), which secured the right to possess obscene material in one’s home.

Furthermore, he claimed that his importation for private use distinguished his case from United States v. Thirty-seven Photographs (1971), in which the Court upheld the same statute when applied to the importation of pornographic materials for commercial use. At trial, the district court found the statute unconstitutional on its face. On direct appeal the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case in a 5-4 decision.

Supreme Court upheld seizure of material under Congress’ power to regulate commerce

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the opinion for the majority, upholding the statute as a valid exercise of the “broad, comprehensive powers” granted Congress by the commerce clause.

In addition, he relied on the Court’s decision in Miller v. California (1973), extending the standards for testing the constitutionality of state obscenity laws to federal statutes. Chief Justice Burger found the arguments made by Paladini to be without merit. He specifically noted that “obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment” and that the decision in Stanley did not logically extend to allow one to import such material for personal use.

Douglas dissent argued against federal ban on obscene material

Justice William O. Douglas dissented, arguing that the First Amendment prohibited any federal ban against obscene material. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. also dissented (joined by Justices Potter Stewart and Thurgood Marshall), arguing that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad.

This article was originally published in 2009. Michael P. Fix is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University. Dr. Fix’s research examines various issue in law and courts and includes multiple articles on obscenity law. His recent book is titled U.S. Supreme Court Doctrine in the State High Courts (Cambridge University Press).

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