SIGNIFICANCE: POPE V. ILLINOIS

Case NamePope v. Illinois
Citation: 481 U.S. 497 (1987)
TopicsObscenity

Pope was an attendant at an adult bookstore, where he sold certain magazines to the police. He was charged with the offense of obscenity under Illinois law.

The proper test for determining obscenity is the three-part test set forth in the case Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973):

•The average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

•The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by state law; and

•The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

At Pope’s trial, the judge instructed the jury that, to convict, they must determine whether an ordinary member of the state of Illinois would find serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value in the material.

The appeals court found this was in error, holding that community standards should apply only to the first and second prongs of the Miller obscenity test. The Court ruled that the proper jury instruction for the third prong of the Miller obscenity test should be whether a reasonable person would find value in the material, taken as a whole, not whether an ordinary member of any given community would find serious value in the allegedly obscene material. The basis of the Court’s ruling was that the ideas represented in a work do not have to win approval from a majority of the community to be protected and the value of the work does not vary from community to community based on how much local acceptance it has won. 

This case is significant because it establishes an objective, nationwide prong of the Miller obscenity test.

These materials are not intended, and should not be used, as legal advice. They necessarily contain generalizations that are not applicable in all jurisdictions or circumstances. Moreover, court decisions may be superseded by subsequent rulings, and may be subject to alternative interpretations. Corrections, clarification, and additions are welcome here.