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Case Basics
Docket No. 
United States
(Argued the cause for the United States, pro hac vice, by special leave of the Court)
(Argued the cause for the petitioners)
Facts of the Case 

Ralph Ginzburg and several of his associates were charged with violating a federal obscenity statute for mailing circulars about how and where three different obscene publications could be obtained. Ginzburg challenged his conviction as unconstitutional since the circulars themselves were not obscene. On appeal from an adverse ruling by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding an unfavorable lower court finding, the Supreme Court granted Ginzburg certiorari.


Does conviction under the federal obscenity statute, for pandering advertisements for sexually explicit publications, violate of the First Amendment's free speech protections if the advertisements are not themselves obscene?

Decision: 5 votes for United States, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 18 U.S.C. 1461

Yes. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that although circulars themselves may not be obscene, their public mailing offends the federal obscenity statute if they advertise obscene materials. The Court reasoned that where the sole emphasis of an advertisement is the commercial exploitation of erotica for prurient appeal, it shall be deemed "pornographic" communication that lies beyond the scope of First Amendment speech protections. The Court cautioned, however, that the distribution of materials containing sexuality in the context of art, literature, or science is not per se prohibited under the obscenity statute if it can be shown to advance human knowledge or understanding.

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GINZBURG v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
GINZBURG v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"GINZBURG v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,