Monday, November 2, 2009

Winters v. New York

Winters v. People of the State of New York (333 U.S. 507) is a US Supreme Court decision dating back to 1948, but still frequently cited today. The case overturned a state law prohibiting the publication or distribution of "true crime" magazines. The decision is one of many that are often cited as affirming the principle that restrictions on protected speech must be very narrowly drawn and written in highly specific language. One of the reasons the court overturned the state law was that the law was too vague and broad, failing to create a situation in which "an honest distributor of publications could know when he might be held to have ignored such a prohibition."

A passing remark in the court's decision has become a legal quotable quote, because it emphasizes that most expression is protected speech, even if the materials in dispute are something quite a bit less than great literature or art:
"Though we can see nothing of any possible value to society in these magazines, they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature."
This is an important point sometimes ignored by censorship proponents, who try to claim, incorrectly, that "junk" books and "trashy" novels aren't protected speech.


  1. Interesting, I hadn't heard of this before.

    This reminds me of a very interesting documentary called Comic Book Confidential, during one part they discussed the effects of laws that were passed to restrict what could be in published comic books and what couldn't. This involved not having "weird", "horror" or other words in the title. There were several other equally ridiculous restrictions. Any thoughts?

  2. I haven't seen the documentary, but I'm glad those kinds of restrictions don't apply any more. Was this an example of self-censorship -- the comic publishers trying to avoid controversy -- or was it that there were outside rules like the "true crime" laws mentioned in this post?

  3. Outside restrictions. Laws were actually passed saying you couldn't make comic books with words like "weird"(denoting horror/supernatural comic series usually) in the the title. It's very laughable to watch testimonies about how comic books were "damaging" children.

    But I also think there were reprecussions afterwards of some authors or publishers trying to avoid controversy by not publishing anything too "controversial". Sad, really.