Bantam Books, Inc v. Sullivan, 118

Decision Date18 February 1963
Docket NumberNo. 118,118
Citation83 S.Ct. 631,372 U.S. 58,9 L.Ed.2d 584
PartiesBANTAM BOOKS, INC., et al., Appellants, v. Joseph A. SULLIVAN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 58-59 intentionally omitted]

Horace S. Manges, New York City, for appellants.

J. Joseph Nugent, Providence, R.I., for appellees.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Rhode Island Legislature created the 'Rhode Island Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth,' whose members and Executive Secretary are the appellees herein, and gave the Commission inter alia '* * * the duty * * * to educate the public concerning any book, picture, pamphlet, ballad, printed paper or other thing containing obscene, indecent or impure language, or manifestly tending to the corruption of the youth as de- fined in section 13, 47, 48 and 49 of chapter 610 of the general laws, as amended, and to investigate and recommend the prosecution of all violations of said sections * * *.'1 The appellants brought this action in the Superior Court of Rhode Island (1) to declare the law creating the Commission in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and (2) to declare unconstitutional and enjoin the acts and practices of the appellees thereunder. The Superior Court declined to declare the law creating the Commission unconstitutional on its face but granted the appellants an injunction against the acts and practices of the appellees in performance of their duties. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island affirmed the Superior Court with respect to appellants' first prayer but reversed the grant of injunctive relief. R.I., 176 A.2d 393 (1961).2 Appellants brought this appeal and we noted probable jurisdiction, 370 U.S. 933, 82 S.Ct. 1587, 8 L.Ed.2d 805.3

Appellants are four New York publishers of paperback books which have for sometime been widely distributed in Rhode Island. Max Silverstein & Sons is the exclusive wholesale distributor of appellants' publications throughout most of the State. The Commission's practice has been to notify a distributor on official Commission stationery that certain designated books or magazines distributed by him had been reviewed by the Commission and had been declared by a majority of its members to be objectionable for sale, distribution or display to youths under 18 years of age. Silverstein had received at least 35 such notices at the time this suit was brought. Among the paperback books listed by the Commission as 'objectionable' were one published by appellant Dell Publishing Co., Inc., and another published by appellant Bantam Books, Inc. 4

The typical notice to Silverstein either solicited or thanked Silverstein, in advance, for his 'cooperation' with the Commission, usually reminding Silverstein of the Commission's duty to recommend to the Attorney General prosecution of purveyors of obscenity.5 Copies of the lists of 'objectionable' publications were circulated to local police departments, and Silverstein was so informed in the notices.

Silverstein's reaction on receipt of a notice was to take steps to stop further circulation of copies of the listed publications. He would not fill pending orders for such publications and would refuse new orders. He instructed his field men to visit his retailers and to pick up all unsold copies, and would then promptly return them to the publishers. A local police officer usually visited Silverstein shortly after Silverstein's receipt of a notice to learn what action he had taken. Silverstein was usually able to inform the officer that a specified number of the total of copies received from a publisher had been returned. According to the testimony, Silverstein acted as he did on receipt of the notice 'rather than face the possibility of some sort of a court action against ourselves, as well as the people that we supply.' His 'cooperation' was given to avoid becoming involved in a 'court proceeding' with a 'duly authorized organization.'

The Superior Court made fact findings and the following two, supported by the evidence and not rejected by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, are particularly relevant:

'8. The effect of the said notices (those received by Silverstein, including the two listing publications of appellants) were (sic) clearly to intimidate the various book and magazine wholesale distributors and retailers and to cause them, by reason of such intimidation and threat of prosecution, (a) to refuse to take new orders for the proscribed publications, (b) to cease selling any of the copies on hand, (c) to withdraw from retailers all unsold copies, and (d) to return all unsold copies to the publishers.

'9. The activities of the Respondents (appellees here) have resulted in the suppression of the sale and circulation of the books listed in said notices * * *.'

In addition to these findings it should be noted that the Attorney General of Rhode Island conceded on oral argument in this Court that the books listed in the notices included several that were not obscene within this Court's definition of the term.

Appellants argue that the Commission's activities under Resolution 73, as amended, amount to a scheme of governmental censorship devoid of the constitutionally required safeguards for state regulation of obscenity, and thus abridge First Amendment liberties, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from infringement by the States. We agree that the activities of the Commission are unconstitutional and therefore reverse the Rhode Island court's judgment and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.6

We held in Alberts v. State of California, decided with Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 485, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1309, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498, that 'obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press' and may therefore be regulated by the States. But this principle cannot be stated without an important qualification:

* * * (I)n Roth itself we expressly recognized the complexity of the test of obscenity fashioned in that case and the vital necessity in its application of safeguards to prevent denial of 'the protection of freedom of speech and press for material which does not treat sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest.' (354 U.S. at 488, 77 S.Ct. at 1311) * * * It follows that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, a State is not free to adopt whatever procedures it pleases for dealing with obscenity * * * without regard to the possible consequences for constitutionally protected speech.' Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717, 730—731, 81 S.Ct. 1708, 1715, 1716, 6 L.Ed.2d 1127.

Thus, the Fourteenth Amendment requires that regulation by the States of obscenity conform to procedures that will ensure against the curtailment of constitutionally protected expression, which is often separated from obscenity only by a dim and uncertain line. It is characteristic of the freedoms of expression in general that they are vulnerable to gravely damaging yet barely visible encroachments. Our insistence that regulations of obscenity scrupulously embody the most rigorous procedural safeguards, Smith v. People of the State of California, 361 U.S. 147, 80 S.Ct. 215, 4 L.Ed.2d 205; Marcus v. Search Warrant, supra, is therefore but a special instance of the larger principle that the freedoms of expression must be ringed about with adequate bulwarks. See, e.g., Thornhill v. State of Alabama, 310, U.S. 88, 60 S.Ct. 736, 84 L.Ed. 1093; Winters v. People of the State of New York, 333 U.S. 507, 68 S.Ct. 665, 92 L.Ed. 840; N.A.A.C.P. v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 83 S.Ct. 328. '(T)he line between speech unconditionally guaranteed and speech which may legitimately be regulated * * * is finely drawn. * * * The separation of legitimate from illegitimate speech calls for * * * sensitive tools * * *.' Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525, 78 S.Ct. 1332, 1342, 2 L.Ed.2d 1460.

But is it contended, these salutary principles have no application to the activities of the Rhode Island Commission because it does not regulate or suppress obscenity but simply exhorts booksellers and advises them of their legal rights. This contention, premised on the Commission's want of power to apply formal legal sanctions, is untenable. It is true that appellants' books have not been seized or banned by the State, and that no one has been prosecuted for their possession or sale. But though the Commission is limited to informal sanctions—the threat of invoking legal sanctions and other means of coercion, persuasion, and intimidation—the record amply demonstrates that the Commission deliberately set about to achieve the suppression of publications deemed 'objectionable' and succeeded in its aim.7 We are not the first court to look through forms to the substance and recognize that informal censorship may sufficiently inhibit the circulation of publications to warrant injunctive relief.8

It is not as if this were not regulation by the State of Rhode Island. The acts and practices of the members and Executive Secretary of the Commission disclosed on this record were performed under color of state law and so constituted acts of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S.Ct. 441, 52 L.Ed. 714. Cf. Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461, 73 S.Ct. 809, 97 L.Ed. 1152. These acts and practices directly and designedly stopped the circulation of publications in many parts of Rhode Island. It is true, as noted by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, that Silverstein was 'free' to ignore the Commission's notices, in the sense that his refusal to 'cooperate' would have violated no law. But it was found as a fact—and the finding, being amply supported by the record, binds us—that Silverstein's compliance with the Commission's directives was not voluntary. People do not lightly disregard public officers' thinly veiled threats to institute criminal proceedings against them if they do not come around, and...

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