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An obscenity is any statement or act that strongly offends the prevalent morality of the time. It is derived from the Latin obscaena (offstage) a cognate of the Ancient Greek root skene, because some potentially offensive content, such as murder or sex, was depicted offstage in classical drama. The word can be used to indicate a strong moral repugnance, in expressions such as "obscene profits" or "the obscenity of war".


  • But implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.
    • William J. Brennan, Jr., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 484 (1957); often misquoted as "utterly without redeeming social value". The decision also cited the test used in American courts in judging obscenity: "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest", 354 U.S. 489. This was noted to be "the first definition of obscenity offered by the court. It was modified in several subsequent decisions and finally replaced with another standard in the 1973 case of Miller v. California". Congressional Quarterly Inc., The Supreme Court and Its Work (1981), p. 215.
  • We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene!
  • You have to show violence the way it is. If you don't show it realistically, then that's immoral and harmful. If you don't upset people, then that's obscenity.
    • Roman Polański, as quoted in Shakespearean Criticism : Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare's Plays and Poetry, from the First Published Appraisals to Current Evaluations (1985) by Laurie Lanzen Harris, p. 11.
  • Obscenity is whatever happens to shock some elderly and ignorant magistrate.
    • Bertrand Russell, as quoted in Look (New York, 23 February 1954).
    • Cf. Russell (1928), Sceptical Essays, «It is obvious that "obscenity" is not a term capable of exact legal definition; in the practice of the Courts, it means "anything that shocks the magistrate".»

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