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RABE v. WASHINGTON
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WASHINGTON
Argued February 29, 1972
Decided March 20, 1972
Petitioner was convicted of violating Washington's obscenity statute for showing a sexually frank motion picture at a drive-in theater. In affirming his conviction, the Washington Supreme Court did not hold that the film was obscene under the standards of Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 , and Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 , but that it was obscene in "the context of its exhibition" at a drive-in. The statute proscribing the knowing display of "obscene" films did not mention the location of the exhibition as an element of the offense. Held: A State may not criminally punish the exhibition of a motion picture film at a drive-in theater where the statute assertedly violated has not given fair notice that the location of the exhibition was a vital element of the offense.
79 Wash. 2d 254, 484 P.2d 917, reversed.
William L. Dwyer argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.
Curtis Ludwig argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Herbert H. Davis.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Stanley Fleishman and Sam Rosenwein for the National Association of Theatre Owners, Inc., and by Louis Nizer and James Bouras for the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.
Constantine Regusis filed a brief for Morality in Media, Inc., as amicus curiae, urging affirmance.
Petitioner was the manager of the Park Y Drive-In Theatre in Richland, Washington, where the motion picture Carmen Baby was shown. The motion picture is a loose adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen, containing [405 U.S. 313, 314] sexually frank scenes but no instances of sexual consummation are explicitly portrayed. After viewing the film from outside the theater fence on two successive evenings, a police officer obtained a warrant and arrested petitioner for violating Washington's obscenity statute. Wash. Rev. Code 9.68.010. Petitioner was later convicted and, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Washington affirmed. 79 Wash. 2d 254, 484 P.2d 917 (1971). We granted certiorari. 404 U.S. 909 . We reverse petitioner's conviction.
The statute under which petitioner was convicted, Wash. Rev. Code 9.68.010, made criminal the knowing display of "obscene" motion pictures:
To avoid the constitutional vice of vagueness, it is necessary, at a minimum, that a statute give fair notice that certain conduct is proscribed. The statute under which petitioner was prosecuted, however, made no mention that the "context" or location of the exhibition was an element of the offense somehow modifying the word "obscene." Petitioner's conviction was thus affirmed under a statute with a meaning quite different from the one he was charged with violating.
What we said last Term in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 19 , answers respondent's contention that the peculiar interest in prohibiting outdoor displays of sexually frank motion pictures justifies the application of this statute to petitioner:
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington is
I concur solely on the ground that petitioner's conviction under Washington's general obscenity statute cannot, under the circumstances of this case, be sustained consistent with the fundamental notice requirements of [405 U.S. 313, 317] the Due Process Clause. The evidence in this case, however, revealed that the screen of petitioner's theater was clearly visible to motorists passing on a nearby public highway and to 12 to 15 nearby family residences. In addition, young teenage children were observed viewing the film from outside the chain link fence enclosing the theater grounds. I, for one, would be unwilling to hold that the First Amendment prevents a State from prohibiting such a public display of scenes depicting explicit sexual activities if the State undertook to do so under a statute narrowly drawn to protect the public from potential exposure to such offensive materials. See Redrup v. New York, 386 U.S. 767 (1967). 1
Public displays of explicit materials such as are described in this record are not significantly different from any noxious public nuisance traditionally within the power of the States to regulate and prohibit, and, in my view, involve no significant countervailing First Amendment considerations. 2 That this record shows an offensive nuisance that could properly be prohibited, I have no doubt, but the state statute and charge did not give the notice constitutionally required.
[ Footnote 2 ] Under such circumstances, where the very method of display may thrust isolated scenes on the public, the Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 489 (1957), requirement that the materials be "taken as a whole" has little relevance. For me, the First Amendment must be treated in this context as it would in a libel action: if there is some libel in a book, article, or speech we do not average the tone and tenor of the whole; the libelous part is not protected. [405 U.S. 313, 318]