Lust Can Be Healthy, Supreme Court Agrees

Associated Press

Agreeing that lust can be healthy, the Supreme Court ruled today that a state’s anti-obscenity laws cannot ban something simply because it incites lust.

But by a 6-2 vote, the justices said a federal appeals court went too far in striking down a Washington state “moral nuisance” law in its entirety rather than just invalidating the section mentioning lust.

The Washington law labeled as obscene--and therefore not constitutionally protected--any material that “incites lasciviousness or lust.”

Writing for the high court, Justice Byron R. White said: “Unless there are countervailing considerations, the Washington law should have been invalidated only insofar as the word lust is to be understood as reaching protected materials.”


Back to 9th Circuit

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had invalidated the entire moral nuisance law. Today’s decision sent the case back to the appeals court with instructions to limit its ruling to the law’s use of the word lust.

In striking down the law, the appeals court had said it was too broad and could be used to suppress non-obscene material.

White said past Supreme Court decisions on obscenity were not intended to characterize as obscene “material that provoked only normal, healthy sexual desires.”


“We do not differ with that view,” White said.

Pornographers, legitimate publishers, librarian groups and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the 1982 law successfully in the 9th Circuit Court.

Called ‘Most Punitive’

Arguing the case before the high court last February, lawyer John Weston of Los Angeles, who represented the coalition of challengers to the law, called it “the most punitive anti-obscenity statute in the history of the United States.”


Material that is deemed to be obscene is not given constitutional protection as are other forms of speech or expression.

The Supreme Court’s last major attempt to define what is obscene came in 1973, when Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote that material is obscene if:

--The average person using contemporary local community standards finds that it appeals to prurient interests.

--And it depicts in a patently offensive way sexual acts specifically defined by an applicable state law.


--And taken as a whole, the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Two Definitions

The 1973 ruling defined prurient as a morbid or depraved interest in sex, nudity or excretion.

The 1982 law passed by the Washington Legislature defined prurient as anything that incites lust.


In saying the appeals court went too far in striking down the entire law, White said, “A federal court should not extend its invalidation of a statute further than necessary to dispose of the case before it.”

“It is quite evident that the remainder of the statute retains its effectiveness as a regulation of obscenity,” White said.