In the United States, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, allowing citizens broad the right to choose their own forms of entertainment. However, obscenity (pornographic material that violates community standards without any redeeming artistic or social value) is not considered protected material.
Federal law plays an important role in regulating explicit content. The federal government employs a three-pronged test to classify a piece of material as obscene, subjecting it to legal action.
The three-prong test
The federal standard to determine obscenity is also known as the Miller Test. This test is an important tool in maintaining community standards and protecting against the distribution of explicit or offensive content.
- The first prong: The federal obscenity crime test requires that the material must appeal to “prurient interests.” This means that the content intends to arouse sexual desires in a deviant way. The key here is whether the average person would find the material in question sexually stimulating.
- The second prong: The second part of the test focuses on explicit and offensive depictions of sexual conduct. In this context, “explicit” refers to content that is vivid, graphic or detailed in its portrayal of sexual acts. A measurement of the material must label it as offensive when measured against community standards.
- The third prong: The final prong of the federal obscenity crime test seeks to determine whether the material in question has any redeeming social, artistic or scientific value. Such value usually prevents labeling the material as obscene.
Once an issue fails the Miller Test, the courts can effectively prohibit it because it is not protected under the First Amendment.
One of the most important aspects of the Miller Test is the reliance on “community standards.” This means that material considered obscene in one community might not be in another. The courts assess whether the material appeals to the prurient interests, is offensive and lacks serious value based on the local community standards.
In the United States, there were 64,142 federal obscenity cases reported in fiscal year 2022. Understanding the nuances of the three-pronged test is essential for content creators and consumers to navigate the legal landscape of obscenity.