Virginia v. American Booksellers Assn., Inc.

484 U. S. 383

January 25, 1988

Virginia had long prohibited selling obscene books to juveniles, and in 1985 the law was amended to prohibit the displaying of these books to juveniles too. Bookstores protested that keeping kids from seeing obscene books was simply not feasible. Shielding the books from the kids would be costly, and would inevitably prevent adults from seeing them too. The bookstores also argued that a surprisingly high percentage of books sold were obscene under the statute. As an example, they cited a collection of classic love poems.

The Supreme Court unanimously decided to punt. Brennan certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court, which had the power to authoritatively interpret the law. First, were the books like the love poem collection really inappropriate for juveniles under the law? This was asked because the Commonwealth’s lawyer emphatically claimed they were not. Second, is the law violated if the books are physically displayed, but the bookstore still prevents kids from perusing them?

Stevens objected that the first question treated all the books at issue as a package deal. He said that the Virginia Supreme Court ought to give individual judgment on each book that the bookstores complained of being covered by the law. In any event, certification was a good idea, and it’s a shame that it’s not used more often. As to the case itself, it’s a clear relic of the sadly long gone days when it was still possible to fight obscenity. I’ll be the first to admit that the internet has been a wonderful tool for good; but it’s also indisputably been a powerful tool for evil.

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