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How does the notion of community standards affect obscenity cases?

The first two prongs of the Miller test—prurient interest and patent offensiveness— are both judged by community standards. The applicable community could be a local or state standard. In a few states, there is a state-wide standard. In some states the community is county-by-county. There is no national standard or international standard in obscenity cases. This becomes a major issue in cases involving alleged obscenity on the Internet. Defendants—especially publishers or distributors of pornographic material—have alleged it is unfair for them to be subject to the community standards of a particularly restrictive locale when they for instance may have produced the material in a more tolerant community.

This occurred in a case United States v. Thomas (6th Cir. 1996) involving a California couple responsible for the creation of an online bulletin board full of sex materials. The California-based couple sold material to an undercover federal law enforcement agent in Memphis. The officer then charged the couple with obscenity and the case was prosecuted under the community standards of Tennessee, not California.

When does speech cross the line into unprotected incitement?

According to the U.S. Supreme Court's standard in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), even speech that advocates illegal conduct is protected speech under the First Amendment unless the speech incites imminent lawless action and is likely to cause such unlawful action. Brandenburg involved a Ku Klux Klan leader near Cincinnati, Ohio, area who gave a speech filled with racist comments about African-Americans and Jews. He also said that if the government kept up its course of action, there would have to be some "revengeance" taken. However, the Court unanimously determined that this fell far short of incitement to imminent lawless action.

The Court explained: "These later decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such act."

When does speech cross the line and become a true threat?

True threats also are not protected by the First Amendment. Rhetorical hyperbole— even if the speaker uses harsh and colorful language—generally will not constitute a true threat because there is no serious intention to cause harm to another. The U.S. Supreme Court applied this principle in the case of Watts v. United States (1969), which involved a young African-American war protester. Speaking in a crowd, the young man said that if the government made him go with his "black brothers" to Vietnam that the first person he would put in the "scope of his rifle was L.B.J." referring to U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Court determined that this was mere political hyperbole, rather than an actual threat.

In Virginia v. Black (2003), the Court offered a more concrete definition of a true threat in the context of a case involving cross burnings by Ku Klux Klan members. The Court determined that true threats "encompass those states where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals."

What was the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of a true threat in Virginia v. Black (2003).

"True threats" encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats protects individuals from the fear of violence and from the disruption that fear engenders, in addition to protecting people "from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur. Intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death."

 
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