Four Musicians Roth Vs. U.S. Would Have Jailed (NSFW)
Standing up for the First Amendement is a hard row to hoe sometimes. Sure, it's fun when you can defend someone like Marilyn Manson, but it's a lot less fun when you realize you also have to defend people like the Westboro Baptist Church. Thems the breaks, though. If you're going to have freedom you're going to have to deal with it.
AP/Life.com Samuel Roth
Lucky for us, for 16 years Americans weren't bothered with this dilemma because the Supreme Court took a pretty significant portion of your right to free speech away. This week, 54 years ago, the court handed down the 6-3 decision in Roth vs. United States that said that material whose "dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest" was not protected under the First Amendment.
The case that brought about this decision, thankfully gone to rest after a 1973 ruling that stated obscenity is indeed protected by free speech, was one against a man named Samuel Roth. Roth was the publisher of a magazine called American Aphrodite that specialized in literary erotica and nude pictures. Roth was convicted on an obscenity charge in California, and the case made its way up from there.
Roth is a pretty interesting guy in his own right. He wrote a book that he said was a late work by Nietszche written in an insane asylum near the end of his life, another called Violations of the Child Marilyn Monroe published under the nom de plume Her Psychiatrist Friend, and finally one of him as Jesus. Legend has it that Roth did not die, but instead was lifted bodily into the sky to become what we now know of as the internet.
Nude pics and literary erotica, huh? Good thing that case has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, because some of our favorite musical personalities would've been arrested. Such as...
Controversy surrounded John Lennon his entire life because, well, he liked annoying people. If we may quote our favorite line from Hard Day's Night spoken by the band's manager about Lennon, "I put him in chains but he'd just rattle them at me." Urban legends, myths, and outrage sprung up all around him, but few of his antics could've gotten him out and out arrested.
Under Roth, though, he could very well had been jailed for the cover of his first album with Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. The cover was a simple front on nude shot of both Lennon and Ono taken in Ringo Starr's basement. Distributers insisted on selling the album in a brown paper sleeve, and 30,000 copies were confiscated in New Jersey under obscenity statutes.