"Somebody Somewhere Needs to Draw the Line": Deep Throat and the Regulation of Obscenity in Little Rock

Article excerpt

FOR NEARLY SEVENTY YEARS, the Little Rock Censor Board attempted to suppress literature, plays, films, and other forms of entertainment that it perceived as threats to the public's moral fiber. By the early 1970s, these threats included widely released pornographic movies, most notably Deep Throat. But that movie's very popularity suggested a shift in public attitudes that left the censor board ill-prepared to counteract a more blatantly sexual popular culture or continue to serve as the city's moral guardian.

The issue of obscenity and how to control it has a long history in Arkansas. In its first session after Arkansas became a state, the legislature adopted an obscenity law. The brief 1837 statute prohibited public nudity, and anyone "publicly exhibiting any obscene or indecent pictures or figures" would be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.1 This first obscenity statute, however, had some flaws. It did not address the sale of obscene literature and, more importantly, did not define obscenity. Through the years, the Arkansas General Assembly amended the state's censorship laws to make the original statute more comprehensive. In 1883, the legislature remedied the omission in the 1837 law by making it illegal to sell or circulate obscene literature. Nearly five decades later, the legislature passed Act 155 of 1931, which made the possession of obscene materials a crime.2

But a legal definition of obscenity was a long time coming-at both the state and federal levels. In 1957, the United States Supreme Court, in Roth v. United States, found that a product was obscene if the "average person, applying contemporary community standards, [finds] the dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest."3 The Roth decision declared that materials that addressed sexual topics were not obscene if they displayed "redeeming social importance." Soon after the Roth decision, the Arkansas legislature passed an obscenity law incorporating the federal definition. In 1965, the publishers of the adult-oriented Gent Magazine, which had been found to be obscene in a Jefferson County chancery court, challenged that new law, Act 261 of 1961. Though the jury determined the magazine met the definition of obscenity, the appellants argued that the community standard aspect actually referred to national rather than local sensibilities.4 As expected, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the chancery court decision and upheld the obscenity judgment.5

The U.S. Supreme Court redefined obscenity in its 1966 decision Memoirs v. Massachusetts, listing three benchmarks for material being considered obscene:

a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters; and c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value.6

One year after the Memoirs decision, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 411 of 1967, which made the distribution, exhibition, sale, and possession of obscene films a felony.7

Well before obscenity had been clearly defined, however, states and municipalities across the country had established bodies to regulate it. In fact, by 1950, censorship by some form of board affected at least 41 percent of all Americans.8 Maryland had one of the longest lived censor boards, operating from 1916 until 1981.9 Boston's Licensing Division, which oversaw public health and safety at entertainment venues, became the city's de facto censor board. Its director and lead censor, Richard Sinnott, was so influential in his fight against obscenity that the phrase "Banned in Boston" became synonymous with censorship.10

Regionally, the Memphis Board of Censors operated from 1911 to 1965. Its leader through most of these years, Lloyd T. Binford, proclaimed himself the "most notorious censor in the world" during a 1954 Associated Press interview and was infamous for his particularly harsh rulings. …