Commonwealth v. Sharpless
When Americans think of obscenity cases in federal courts, they tend to think of 20th century cases, like the one against pornographer Larry Flynt. But cases involving obscenity and pornography are nothing new. Commonwealth v. Sharpless is the first Supreme Court case that examined the ability of states to prosecute privately displayed obscenity, and it took place in 1815.
The Beginnings of the Case
Contemporary obscenity cases almost always revolve around photography, so it may seem somewhat quaint to people in the 21st century that in Commonwealth v. Sharpless, the charge of obscenity extends from a painting. The painting itself has been lost to history, but according to court documents, it depicted a man in a sexual position with a woman.
Jesse Sharpless, the defendant, had exhibited the painting in his Pennsylvania home for profit. He had charged an admissions fee to see the painting privately in one of the rooms of his house. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania arrested him for lewdness, his response was a guilty plea. Immediately after the plea, the defendant's lawyer motioned to stop judgment in the case.
Lewdness, Privacy, and Morality
The reason that the defense attorney believed the Commonwealth had no right to enforce lewdness statutes against his client was simple: according to the lawyer's argument, the crime of lewdness was inherently a public crime—the publicity was, in fact, what made an exhibition of lewd material criminal.
The attorney also argued that while indeed it would be legitimate for Sharpless to be tried by ecclesiastical courts or be subject to the “frowns of society,” that did not mean it was legitimate for the state to criminally prosecute him. This was, the defense attorney said, a potentially immoral act, but not all immoral acts are legislated against.
The Court's Ruling
The court started by agreeing with Sharpless' lawyer that not all immoral acts rise to the level of illegality. However, the court at this time also perceived itself as a protector of public morality, and agreed with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that Sharpless should be convicted of lewdness.
The reason for this is that the court's justices believed the painting not only to be a corrupting influence on people who viewed it, but also by extension on society at large. Even people who had never seen the painting themselves could potentially be corrupted by reading about it or having it described to them. Anything which tends to corrupt society, the judges ruled, could be legislated against at the state level.
Changes to Obscenity Laws
Of course, given the number of provocative pieces of art extant today, it's clear that America's obscenity laws have undergone some major revision since the time of Commonwealth v. Sharpless. Courts have become substantially more relaxed with the definition of obscenity because community standards have significantly changed since the early 19th century. The court has consistently held that community standards are the overall arbiter of what is and is not considered obscene at a particular time and place.