Violence As Obscenity

Limiting the Media's First Amendment Protection

Violence As Obscenity

Constitutional Conflicts

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Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: Published: April 1996

Law, Media Studies, Politics > Public Policy

This timely and accessible volume takes a fresh approach to a question of increasing public concern: whether or not the federal government should regulate media violence. In Violence as Obscenity, Kevin W. Saunders boldly calls into question the assumption that violent material is protected by the First Amendment. Citing a recognized exception to the First Amendment that allows for the regulation of obscene material, he seeks to expand the definition of obscenity to include explicit and offensive depictions of violence.
Saunders examines the public debate on media violence, the arguments of professional and public interest groups urging governmental action, and the media and the ACLU’s desire for self-regulation. Citing research that links violence in the media to actual violence, Saunders argues that a present danger to public safety may be reduced by invoking the existing law on obscenity. Reviewing the justifications of that law, he finds that not only is the legal history relied on by the Supreme Court inadequate to distinguish violence from sex, but also many of the justifications apply more forcefully to instances of violence than to sexually explicit material that has been ruled obscene. Saunders also examines the actions that Congress, states, and municipalities have taken to regulate media violence as well as the legal limitations imposed on such regulations by the First Amendment protections given to speech and the press. In discussing the current operation of the obscenity exception and confronting the issue of censorship, he advocates adapting to the regulation of violent material the doctrine of variable obscenity, which applies a different standard for material aimed at youth, and the doctrine of indecency, which allows for federal regulation of broadcast material.
Cogently and passionately argued, Violence as Obscenity will attract scholars of American constitutional law and mass communication, and general readers moved by current debates about media violence, regulation, and censorship.


“Saunders has fashioned an ingenious and provocative thought experiment regarding options for state regulation of media violence.” — Sissela Bok, Michigan Law Review

Violence as Obscenity is a strong and provocative argument about a topic of major importance, buttressed with thorough doctrinal analysis, exhaustive historical background, and appropriate connections with a number of important arguments in the existing First Amendment literature.” — Frederick Schauer, Harvard University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kevin W. Saunders is Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. The Public Debate over Media Violence

2. The Social Science Debate on the Causative Effect of Media Violence

3. First Amendment Limitations

4. The Concept of Obscenity

5. The History of Obscenity Law and the Development of Its Limitation to Depictions of Sex

6. The Law and Depictions of Violence

7. Sex, Violence, and First Amendment Policy

8. Violence and the Feminist Concern with Pornography

9. Statues and Implications



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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1767-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1758-6
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