SIGNIFICANCE: BANTAM BOOKS, INC. V. SULLIVAN
Paperback book publisher Bantam Books, Inc. filed a suit asking the Court to declare as unconstitutional Rhode Island’s law creating the Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth. In performance of its duties, the Commission suppressed circulation of certain “objectionable” publications in many parts of Rhode Island for their alleged obscenity, indecency, or impure language. The Commission was not subject to judicial oversight before it issued notices of its obscenity finding to book distributors; nor was judicial review of the Commission’s determinations provided. Furthermore, the book publishers or distributors were not entitled to notice or hearing before their publications were listed as objectionable by the Commission.
The Court found that, though obscenity is not a form of protected speech, the state still must provide adequate safeguards to ensure that constitutionally protected expression is not incidentally censored in the regulation of obscenity. The Commission did not provide such safeguards, and it thus imposed a system of prior restraint on material that had not yet been and perhaps may never have been characterized as obscene in a judicial proceeding. Any system of prior restraint bears a presumption of unconstitutionality, and the Court noted that it had only allowed prior restraint where it operated under judicial superintendence and assured an almost immediate judicial determination of the validity of the restraint. The system imposed by Rhode Island did not do so. Additionally, the Court found the system overbroad in effect, as it completely suppressed the listed publications and deprived adults as well as children of the opportunity to purchase the publications in the state. The Court found this system of censorship unconstitutional, and it struck down the statute creating the Commission.