Estimating community standards: The use of social science evidence in an obscenity prosecution

Daniel Linz, Edward Donnerstein, Kenneth C. Land, Patricia L. Mccall, Joseph Scott, Bradley J. Shafer, Lee J. Klein, Larry Lance

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Elements of the legal test for obscenity of sexually explicit material indicted in a criminal case are examined. A cross-section of residents of Mecklenburg County (Charlotte, NC) were randomly assigned to view either one of the sexually explicit films and the sexually explicit magazine charged in the criminal case, or a control film. Before and after the viewing, residents judged the materials' appeal to a prurient interest (a shameful, morbid, unhealthy interest in sex) and patent offen siveness (community tolerance for such material). The results indicated that the respondents felt that the films and magazine did not appeal to a shameful, morbid, or unhealthy interest in sex, nor did they perceive these materials as going beyond the level of tolerance regarding depictions of sexual conduct for the average adult in that community. A lower percentage of subjects thought the community tolerated the materials they had just viewed than when they were asked to report on what they personally tolerated. Fewer people felt the films appealed to a shameful, morbid, or unhealthy interest in sex after they had an opportunity to see them than before viewing. The advantages of providing jurors in obscenity cases with information about community standards based on summations of personal tolerance for materials actually charged in these cases, rather than hypothetical judgments about the community and obscenity, is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)80-112
Number of pages33
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1991
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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